Jewish World Review August 15, 2007 / 1 Elul, 5767
Search for terrorists finds a traitor
By Alfred Lubrano
Shannen Rossmiller is a former Montana judge who hunts terrorists online. After witnessing the 9/11 attacks, she became "radicalized," deciding to learn Arabic and pretending to be an extremist to lure jihadists on the Web into revealing their plans to destroy America.
Second in a series
Second in a series
Conspicuous as a barroom braggart, Reynolds is writing boldly - and in English - in the all-Arabic Osama bin Laden Crew chat room, making no pretense about his background or his mission: He's an American citizen out to destroy his country.
Just like Ryan Anderson, Rossmiller says to herself, recalling another angry American, from 2003. Oh, please don't let him be another one like that.
The 2003 e-mail starts with a typical Arab greeting: Wa salaam alaykum.
But the writer is National Guard tank Spec. Ryan Anderson, 27, of the 81st Armor Brigade at Fort Lewis in Washington state. An American.
He's about to be deployed to Iraq. Aside from the opening salutation, he is writing in English on the extremist Web site bravemuslims.com.
Shannen Rossmiller should be in bed, sleeping. But as usual, her racing brain compels her to rise for the radicals.
This is so exciting, she thinks, dressing quietly so as not to wake her husband, Randy. Nothing in her life has been this fascinating.
Randy has given up trying to figure out her obsession. But he doesn't stop it, either.
To pay him back, Rossmiller makes sure he has time to pursue his hobby. He goes off for days, flying custom-built, radio-controlled planes with friends in Montana fields.
Balancing plane-making and terrorist-hunting, the Rossmillers achieve marital harmony.
Neither one of us controls the other, Rossmiller says, which is why we got through the bumpy roads.
Like the first time Rossmiller crashed the home computer while e-mailing terrorists on the Web. Randy, who sets up computer networks for a living, lost tons of work.
"What the hell is all this Arabic stuff?" he asked. "What have you been doing?"
Rossmiller just wanted her jihadists back. "Can't you find my files?" she said.
Family tensions lasted a while after that.
But now, the house is calm. Rossmiller sips a Diet Coke and reads the Anderson e-mail. It's 4:54 a.m. on Nov. 2, 2003.
"Just curious," the e-mail continues. "Would there be any chance a brother who might be on the wrong side at the present could . . . defect so to speak? I have been touched by the will of Allah . . . [and] may be headed for a great mistake, and I may wish to correct that. . . ."
Fully alert, Rossmiller runs through the cast of jihadist characters she has made up. Which should she be? She decides on Abu Khadija, an Algerian extremist, at email@example.com.
"Dear brother in Islam," Rossmiller/Khadija begins. "I call my brothers to do your Muslim duty with your brothers in jihad . . . and kill all infidels coming united on fronts in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq."
Rossmiller throws in misspellings and bad English. What she has written works.
"I am due to enter the war zone soon," Anderson replies to Khadija. "Unfortunately, due to my position I will be bearing the arms of the enemy, thus putting not only my soul, but the souls of our brave brothers and sisters in peril. . . . It may be best if I could arrange to meet in person with a contact once I am over there . . . to . . . show that I am a friend and willing to give my life for Allah's glorious will."
While America wept on 9/11, Ryan Anderson converted to Islam and sought acceptance by al-Qaeda.
Rossmiller's Khadija is a careful sort, exhorting Anderson - who sometimes calls himself Amir Abdul-Rashid - to be wary of his e-mail trail.
One of the ironies of Rossmiller's tireless pursuit is how she cautions her prey to cover their tracks on the Internet. Of course, what they're doing is following Rossmiller's cyber road map, making it easier for her to follow them.
Sometimes, she compels people to affix their names to "oaths of allegiance" she makes up. Other times, she'll send self-destructing e-mails, which delete themselves 30 seconds after they're opened. The oaths and suicide e-mails heighten the excitement of the conspirators and increase her credibility, Rossmiller believes.
This stuff is almost addictive, Rossmiller admits to herself.
Passing throughDriving from Wilkes-Barre to a job at a semiconductor plant in Pocatello, Idaho, in November 2005, Michael Curtis Reynolds notices something compelling amid the wide-open Western scenery: the Williams facility in Opal, Wyo., one of the three biggest natural-gas plants in the United States.
Apparently excited about his find, Reynolds e-mails Rossmiller, who he still believes is an al-Qaeda terrorist.
Reynolds suggests blowing up gas well heads at Williams before destroying the Alaska pipeline, since it's easier to reach. Maybe the transcontinental pipeline could be next, he says.
Promising to lay out his updated plan in detail, Reynolds says he will provide shopping lists of bomb-making ingredients.
Nearly everything al-Qaeda needs, he says, can be purchased at Wal-Mart or Kmart.
From chitchat to treasonHappy to comply with Rossmiller's prompts, Anderson suggests that Khadija and Amir sometimes interact as "George" and "Andy," two old schoolmates from Washington State University, from which Anderson graduated in 2002 with a degree in military history.
Writing now as Andy, Anderson is breezy, but includes information about his coming deployment.
Writing as Amir, Anderson sounds serious and grandiose, with the air of a man very much above the frivolous preoccupations of American life. His heart is with Allah, his head in jihad. He believes his fellow American soldiers are "crude" and "immoral."
"I wonder if an American guy like me with strong [Muslim] faith could ever manage to marry a nice Iraqi girl," writes Andy. Anderson is already married to an American woman he says is "sexy but not smart." And apparently dispensable.
"Iraq . . . I hear is a beautiful country . . .," he continues, "a place that I might [find] a home in. . . . Funny how things like that happen."
Playing along, Rossmiller/Khadija/George writes: "You are still same old Andy! Ever one for adventure!" Her English is purposely clumsy, not that of a native speaker. "I haven't taken marriage vows as yet. It is hard to find a nice wholesome woman these days that is true to her faith and willing to submit to her husband."
Rossmiller thinks about Randy asleep in the next room as she writes that. Like I would ever submit to any guy.
As Christmas approaches, Anderson is Amir, gloomy and restless. It is a "badly perverted Crusader holiday," he writes.
Over the next weeks, Anderson's melancholy increases. "I am caught in the middle," he confides to Khadija. "Stay where I am, with the wrong side, and risk my eternal soul because I have fought with the Crusader armies, or take the dangerous path into the unknown and forsake people who are relying on me at home in the U.S. . . . not to mention become a criminal in my homeland, never to return."
Oh, he so wants to be accepted by the extremists, Rossmiller sees.
Knowledgeable of the law, Rossmiller is careful not to entrap Anderson. She lets him set the agenda.
And sure enough, one day, Anderson tells Khadija how to disable U.S. M1A1 and M1A2 Abrams tanks, and how to kill their crews without destroying the tanks so they could remain useful to al-Qaeda in Iraq.
My Gd, Rossmiller realizes, he's even telling me troop locations in Iraq. And all from his commander's computer!
On Christmas Day, Anderson has decided. "Let's do this," he writes with chilling simplicity. "It will be a fruitful endeavor for all involved."
Rossmiller is amazed at Anderson's determination. She tests his resolve once more.
"Are you prepared to stand behi nd the prophet when killing is necessary?" she asks him.
"Yes," he answers quickly. "It's right to kill."
Rossmiller alerts federal authorities, who arrest Anderson for treason. He is set for a court-martial, and Rossmiller is summoned to testify.
As she packs for Fort Lewis and says goodbye to Randy and the kids, she has no premonition of the mess that will follow.
After the conviction, trials just beginningShe tells of a Web site that featured pictures of Osama bin Laden and a burning American flag.
She explains how an American National Guardsman she'd met on that site wanted to give over U.S. tank secrets to al-Qaeda.
And when her nearly full day on the witness stand is done, Shannen Rossmiller has demonstrated to a court-martial jury of nine commissioned officers at Fort Lewis, Wash., how Spec. Ryan Anderson had, in an e-mail correspondence with her, pushed to get a terrorist to hear his plan, and to effect his betrayal.
Acting on Rossmiller's information, authorities arranged a sting that was recorded on hidden video. Anderson says to people he believes to be al-Qaeda operatives: "It would be very easy to kill a [tank] driver, or the crew inside."
After deliberating 41/2 hours, the jury finds Anderson guilty of five counts of trying to help al-Qaeda. He will be going to prison for life. Rossmiller has known this day was coming, but the severity of the verdict is still a shock.
Anderson's wife and mother weep in the courtroom. Sitting just a few feet away, Rossmiller watches the women break down, and sees Anderson's father, Bruce, put his hand on his daughter-in-law Erin's back to try to comfort her.
Then Rossmiller starts sobbing herself.
My G-d, she thinks, what have I done?He's a man, not just some ghost on the Internet, she realizes. People love him. And I've ruined the lives of all of them.They have every reason to hate me.
Her brain is on fire, her stomach churns.
But what if I'd left him alone? Wouldn't American soldiers have died?
Rossmiller returns to her hotel room and throws up.
Having ensnared Anderson in an exchange of 30 e-mail messages over four months, Rossmiller is seeing firsthand the reach and power of her late-night cybersleuthing.
It should be a day for champagne. But Rossmiller is reeling. And the bad news continues.
"The newspapers and TV stations started calling at 1:03 this afternoon," Randy informs his wife. "I happened to look at the clock."
By the end of the day, 45 news organizations have called. And about 45 more will ring in the next day.
Rossmiller is enraged.
Before the court-martial began, Rossmiller had tried to persuade the Army to preclude her from testifying in open court, so her identity could remain secret. The Army said no.
Then she asked that her online pseudonym not be revealed. But somehow it makes its way into the media.
And suddenly terrorist cyberspace is apprised of the invented persona she used to communicate with Anderson.
Shannen Rossmiller, aka firstname.lastname@example.org, has been outed.
Rossmiller and her husband think it's retribution for disagreements Rossmiller had with the Army during the court-martial.
Prosecutors for whom Rossmiller was testifying, she says, requested all the files she created in her terrorist hunt, tens of thousands of documents she says had nothing to do with Anderson. She refused. She can't say for certain - and Army prosecutors won't discuss - whether this explains the release of her name.
Furious, Randy lashes out. "Now you live with the monster!" he tells her.
Soon enough, the monster bites.
A Turkish Muslim from Montreal phones Rossmiller's office. A clerk gets the call and tells Rossmiller that he says, "I get her."
It turns out that Rossmiller had been targeting the Montreal man - as she had Anderson and other extremists - in her guise as Khadija. And now he knows, and has her name and number.
Oh, G-d, Rossmiller thinks. My children!
Randy is shell-shocked. I just didn't know she swam in such dangerous waters, he tells himself. Of course, he had seen her at night on the computer.
But how did it go from her typing in the near-dark to this man Anderson getting an epic prison sentence to strangers on the phone vowing murder? It doesn't seem real. The Rossmillers continue to argue.
Still, the two can't stay mad at each other for long. They never could.
Randy has been the man for her forever, it seems. They played together as children; their fathers are friends.
Rossmiller did have a disastrous one-year marriage to another guy from high school. But after her divorce, she reconnected with Randy, a farmer with a little college who bowled her over with his charm and kindness. He has been her rock for 14 years now.
At a lanky 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, with olive skin, and a full head of brown hair flecked with gray, Randy suggests the actor Sam Shepard.
One of the first gifts he gave Rossmiller was a set of Time-Life books on serial killers. He understood.
She gave up going to law school for Randy, deciding to make him a home instead. But she could never be only a farm wife and mother. "All those women meeting to learn how to make scrapbooks?" she says. "Not for me."
A shopping list for terrorAfter Thanksgiving 2005, sale-savvy Christmas shoppers fill the aisles of the Pocatello, Idaho, Wal-Mart, with items like candy canes and DVD players on their lists.
Michael Curtis Reynolds walks among them carrying a very different inventory: road flares, shotgun shells, speaker wire, batteries, superglue.
Noticing the items on the shelves, he then reports back to his al-Qaeda operative on the Web, really FBI special agent Mark Seyler, Rossmiller's contact at the bureau. On Nov. 9, Rossmiller informed Seyler about Reynolds, and since early December the agent has been communicating with him in her stead.
In an e-mail Dec. 3, Reynolds tells Seyler where the bomb-making ingredients can be found. And he shows how to make claymores - a type of mine - with drawings. A heading over one bomb drawing says, "placement on [gas] well heads."
Reynolds' hard drive stores the information, along with an article titled, "How Can I Train Myself For Jihad?"
Pumped full of leadDetermined not to be victimized, Rossmiller buys a .38-caliber handgun.
It's a pretty little thing, she says, a Lady Smith, with a rosewood handle. I like it. But my computer is my Kalashnikov.
And she's at war. Every morning at 3.
Eventually, for some unknown reason, the sense of menace abates. The air around Rossmiller is not as charged.
The Rossmillers institute a weekly electronic darts game in their house for diversion. Things are quiet for a while.
Then one night as the family sleeps, somebody breaks into the house, swipes Rossmiller's keys, opens the garage, and drives off with her Victory Red 2001 Pontiac Grand Prix GTP, with leather seats and a Bose stereo system.
It's found the next day, embedded in mud near a reservoir 35 miles south. The car has been shot full of .38-caliber bullets. The cops never find a suspect.
The day of the theft, one of the officers pulls her aside and asks: "Do you have any enemies?"
To be continued ...
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