On a typical day Shannen Rossmiller, a municipal court judge, rules on domestic disputes, fender benders and petty crimes in rural Conrad, Mont. At night she has dinner with her husband, Randy, and their three school-age children, watches some TV, helps with homework and hits the sack by 11. Then at 3 a.m. Rossmiller wakes up, turns on her computer—and hunts terrorists.
Posing as an Islamic militant, she trawls the Internet, infiltrating online forums where jihadists exchange messages and trying to identify potential terrorists. No one pays her and she belongs to no official intelligence organization. But for Rossmiller, 34, cyber-sleuthing is more than a hobby: On Sept. 2 her testimony resulted in the conviction at Washington’s Fort Lewis Army base of an Iraq-bound National Guard tank crewman, Spc. Ryan Anderson. Convicted of attempted treason for trying to aid al-Qaeda, he was sentenced to life in military prison. Elizabeth Bancroft, executive director of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, says Rossmiller handled the situation well but warned against copycat vigilantes. “Shannen knew more of the law than most people,” she says. “Others might not realize the things you can’t do.” (An FBI spokeswoman said the bureau could not discuss Rossmiller’s contribution to the case because the conviction is under appeal.)
Rossmiller’s other life began on Sept. 11, 2001, when she slipped in the tub and fractured her pelvis. Bedridden for a month, she anguished over the barrage of 9/11 stories and images. “I wanted to know who the terrorists are, why this could happen,” she says. Installing translation software on her computer—and teaching herself rudimentary Arabic—she started visiting extremist Web sites. Her early postings were simple, responding to jihadist diatribes with “God is great.”
After several months the jihadists invited her to more secretive forums, in which she exchanged messages in the guise of one of 23 different characters she developed, each with his own e-mail address. A self-described “research nerd,” she steeped herself in the Koran and details of Islamic countries. If she invented a persona from Tehran, she gave him an actual street address and knew the location of the nearest mosque. While on the Web, she came across a small, well-organized group of international armchair intelligence agents called 7-Seas Global Intelligence, which among other tips warned of bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and threats to U.S. forces in Bahrain. Joining them, she was able to exchange information and tips and venture even further into militant networks.
Late one night in the fall of 2003, Rossmiller spotted a posting on an extremist Web site from Anderson, going by the name Amir Abdul Rashid: “Very soon, I will have an opportunity to take my own end of the struggle … to the next level,” he wrote. Intrigued, Rossmiller, adopting the guise of a radical Algerian, struck up an e-mail correspondence. Soon it became clear that Rashid was an American G.I.
Over four months Rossmiller drew him out. When he told her he hoped to tip off al-Qaeda to U.S. troop movements and tactics, she alerted Homeland Security, handing over details she’d collected, including a cell phone number. On Feb. 12—after a two-month sting operation that caught him passing sketches of U.S. tanks to undercover agents—authorities arrested Anderson, a Muslim convert from Pullman, Wash. On the day of his arrest, Rossmiller recalls, “I’d just taken my daughter to the eye doctor in Great Falls. I ran and turned on the TV. Here’s this face so young and innocent. I just started bawling.”
Rossmiller was hardly destined to be a hardened terrorist hunter. She was raised on a Montana wheat farm, then became a paralegal. In 2000 she was appointed the youngest female jurist in the history of Montana, where municipal judges don’t need law degrees. In her scant leisure time she plays darts and catches a Friday movie with Randy, a computer technician. Otherwise, says Randy, “she lives and breathes this.”
At possible risk to herself. When a newspaper let slip one of her aliases, a jihadist e-mail pal called the Conrad courthouse asking for her. The FBI arranged for regular police patrols. On Aug. 30, as she testified against Anderson, security dogs detected possible bomb residue on the door handle of her rented car. (Lab analysis may take weeks.) Still, Rossmiller hasn’t wavered from a sense of mission bordering on compulsion, fueled by rage over a September morning. One memory in particular haunts her. “That plane that went into the Pentagon with those schoolchildren on a trip to the marine sanctuary,” she says. “What would it be like to put a child on a plane and have that happen? Who could do this? I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”
Richard Jerome. Vickie Bane in Conrad