Jewish World Review August 16, 2007 / 2 Elul, 5767
Homing in, but who is hunter, who is game?
By Alfred Lubrano
Shannen Rossmiller is a former Montana judge who hunts terrorists online. After she ensnares a National Guardsman bent on betraying America, her identity is revealed, and she begins to receive death threats. Her life is changed forever.
It's a Pakistani version of a popular U.S. reality show, broadcast on WorldLink TV, that follows police on patrol.
Rossmiller loves watching dogged officers destroy mud-brick drug houses, and seeing bad guys' rights violated.
Brutal is as brutal does, she thinks.
She's been communicating with Michael Curtis Reynolds on the Web. He's like a great novel Rossmiller can't put down.
Mastermind, narcissistic sociopath, Rossmiller pegs Reynolds, a Wilkes-Barre man who is writing in English on the all-Arabic Osama bin Laden Crew Web site. Guys like him creep me out.
"The plan is [to] recall . . . [U.S.] troops home [from Iraq] as well as firing their boss," Reynolds writes. "Interested?"
It's November 2005, and Reynolds seems to want to crash the U.S. government and end the Iraq war. He's asking al-Qaeda for money and personnel.
Oh, dear G-d, please just let him be a blowhole with no life, spouting off, Rossmiller thinks to herself.
She takes a breath."I suggest that you make details in a document and attach to e-mail so it is not intercepted," Rossmiller writes back. "You may call me Hani."
Today, she's not herself, a Montana judge, wife and mother. She's Hani of al-Qaeda, a terrorist recruiter, a killer, and a hater of Americans.
"There's little time, due to how busy we all get during the holidays," Reynolds writes. "There's much shopping to do, travel to plan ... not to mention all the presents to wrap. What I need is to have my Christmas bonus. . . ."
He's writing in code, Rossmiller thinks. This gives her chills.
Ryan Anderson, the National Guard tank crewman she helped jail for treason, would lapse into code sometimes to hide his intention: betraying America.
Reynolds is starting to worry Rossmiller. The plan, she says to herself, trying to compel him. Tell me the plan.
Then Reynolds spills it. He wants trucks filled with propane (Reynolds' "presents") driven into the Alaska pipeline, as well as into refineries and gas lines that crisscross states.
Reynolds tells Hani that in the ensuing chaos of economic collapse, Americans will "trample Washington to recall troops" from Iraq, thus ending America's involvement there.
"The government, the environmentalists and the gas users will be at each others' throats," says Reynolds.
And I suppose anyone who dies in the bombings will just be collateral damage, Rossmiller thinks.
Sending Hani information about the pipeline, as well as a diagram of an Opal, Wyo., refinery in frightening detail, Reynolds convinces her that he is a man of action, not just words.
Rossmiller decides to reward his diligence. "Our leader the sheikh is very much in liking this operation idea," Rossmiller/Hani writes back in halting English.
They negotiate a price, Reynolds' "Christmas bonus": $40,000, to be left in a duffel bag at a deserted Idaho rest stop.
Originally, Reynolds, who has lived in various parts of the world, wants the money wired to a bank account in Austria. No way, Rossmiller/Hani says.
All terrorism is done in cash, Rossmiller says to herself as she writes to Reynolds. Don't you know that?
After the job is done, Reynolds says, he plans to "leave this accursed country forever. . . . It isn't the land of the free but the home of the new dictators."
Coward, Rossmiller says to herself. Sadistic traitor.
People like Reynolds keep Rossmiller up at night. People like Reynolds, Rossmiller believes, show that she can't let her guard down for a second.
Korans on the highway
On July 20, 2006, a rented Budget truck crosses into Montana and turns off the highway and onto a series of back roads.
Descending from the Rockies, the truck speeds through a desolate, hilly area of Caragana brush and green ash trees. Houses here are three, maybe four miles apart.
A rental truck grinding along these little-used roads is odd. That the occupants of the truck are four Muslim men is rarer still, especially in this part of Montana, where outsiders seldom visit.
Suddenly, the driver takes a turn too sharply and loses control. The truck rolls over, pinning one of the occupants in the wreckage. Copies of the Koran spill onto the road.
Rescue workers free the pinned man and rush all four to Pondera Medical Center, where police officer Travis L. Alexander says the injured man refuses treatment.
Meanwhile, the three others seem dazed and hold their backpacks tight.
Alexander begins to question them.
They're all college buddies, they say, but they're aged 22, 25, 43 and 18.
They were coming from the north, they say, but they were driving from the west.
They're selling T-shirts for the Warped Rock Tour, they say. But would Muslims hang out with wild rockers?
Alexander thinks the men seem nervous, and he regards them with deep suspicion.
Who are these guys?
Alexander examines their backpacks and finds, according to the police report, "1 lap top computer (Compaq brand), several cell phones and what appeared to be a high quality GPS unit (Microsoft brand)" plus "several digital and video recording cameras."
Wait a minute! thinks Alexander. Where's the judge? Where's the judge?
Since the Anderson case, the cops around here have been on edge. Not long before the wreck, Alexander says, an anonymous caller phoned town officials and threatened jihad.
And now these guys with mapping equipment show up and wreck 20 miles from Judge Shannen Rossmiller's house.
I love Shannen to death, Alexander tells people, but she's made a lot of us cops nervous.
Alexander calls the FBI. Bureau agents come to the scene and evaluate, and Rossmiller's husband, Randy, and the kids move to a safe location. Rossmiller is working out of town.
Later, Randy returns to the house, thinking, No way anyone chases me from my home. He knows how to use a gun; that's how they're bred in Montana. That night, he tells people, he sleeps with one eye open.
Blow-drying her hair about 7 a.m., Rossmiller notices the message light blinking on the phone.
The recorded voices of cops breathlessly explain what happened.
The FBI suggests Rossmiller not go home for a few days, until it can be sure there's no danger.
Agents later say they evaluated the situation carefully with local police and found no threat, and the men were allowed to go.
Rossmiller downplays the incident. But her friends worry.
"The timing of all this is too strange," Alexander says. "I 100 percent believe they were mapping Shannen's place, GPS-ing the house. They were professionals.
"If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck . . ." he says.
Now, her house is monitored and law-enforcement officials regularly patrol. In theory, nothing should happen.
Still, Rossmiller knows there's theory and there's life. And the difference can kill you.
The online search that never endsMichael Curtis Reynolds wants his payday.
"I need funds," he writes to a person he thinks is an al-Qaeda operative on the Web.
In exchange for information about making and placing bombs to blow up energy pipelines, Reynolds, a Pennsylvania loner whose three children live with his ex-wife in Connecticut, is expecting $40,000 in cash.
"There's not a question a lot of thinking and work went into the plan," he writes on Dec. 1, 2005, to his al-Qaeda contact, now FBI special agent Mark Seyler, taking over for terrorist hunter Shannen Rossmiller.
Reynolds tells al-Qaeda what materials to buy at Wal-Mart, Radio Shack and other stores, how to make and place the bombs, how to escape - even which Motel 6 to stay in.
"Buy. Build. Leave," he writes. "My kind of operation."
Worried about consequences, he delineates the stakes: "If I am discovered, I could get life in prison, perhaps even execution as a traitor."
Reynolds and his online contact agree on a pickup point for the money: a picnic table at a rest area, off Idaho's I-15, called Hell's Half Acre. It gets the name from a nearby field of hardened lava that locals say looks like the moon.
The ground is covered with crystallized snow. The wind blows, and it's 10 degrees above zero.
An FBI video camera hidden behind sagebrush shows the mustached, 6-foot-3 Reynolds in a bulky blue waistcoat, dark pants and black ski cap walk toward the spot where the black-and-red money bag is sitting. It's 12:47 p.m. on Dec. 5, 2005.
Reynolds bends over toward the bag, then turns quickly to his right, as though he hears footsteps in the crunchy snow.
An FBI SWAT team closes in, forces him on his belly, then handcuffs him.
In the 20-minute car ride to the Pocatello FBI office, Reynolds says he was merely checking to see that the money was there. Then he was going to call a private security group called Northbridge to capture the al-Qaeda terrorists he was communicating with.
"I was enticing them," he says.
"That story," an FBI agent tells Reynolds, "makes no sense."
A swift verdictShe looks calm, at least.
How could anyone in the courtroom know that a minute ago she was getting sick in the women's room?
Taking the stand in the trial of United States v. Michael Curtis Reynolds in Scranton two weeks ago, Rossmiller does her best to keep it together.
She avoids Reynolds' eyes and ticks off the case against him - how he went online to enlist al-Qaeda to take down America by blowing up energy pipelines.
Back in 2005 when she was tracking Reynolds on the Net, she knew this day would come. But something about the way Reynolds is defending himself - saying that he was a terrorist hunter just like Rossmiller - upsets her more than she could have anticipated.
Comparing himself to me makes me feel dirty, disgusting, she thinks. It's like a personal attack.
That some guy willing to sell out his country for $40,000 would say that he and she, a patriot who loves the law, are equals riles her endlessly.
She stews on the plane ride back to Montana. At least during the trial the FBI finally acknowledged for the first time publicly that Rossmiller indeed works with them.
Things brighten even more when Rossmiller hears that the jury took little more than their lunch hour to find Reynolds guilty of terrorism on Friday, July 13, after a five-day trial.
Well, Rossmiller says to herself. That's another one locked away.
Back at the computerEven after all the work she put in to capture Reynolds and Ryan Anderson, Rossmiller knows they are just drops in the ocean. Terrorism goes on.
The thought of an endless tide of hatred can be overwhelming, and more than once Rossmiller finds herself daydreaming at her computer.
I hate what these people do, she says. But I also admire the culture they live in.
Through the years of cyberintelligence, Rossmiller has immersed herself in Islamic culture and has come to love it.
The Afghans cherish culture but abhor rules.
It's an observation from The Kite Runner, a novel by Khaled Hosseini, a physician who was born in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Rossmiller remembers that line, and many others in the book, which she loves. It has helped inform some of her online personae with intimate details of the Islamic mind-set.
It also sheds light on how complex the Islamic world is, and how hard it can be for an outsider to understand it.
One night online, when the vitriol gets to be too much, Rossmiller begins to read about Lahore, Pakistan. Since then, she has become charmed by the place.
There's not enough uniqueness to Montana, she thinks to herself. But Lahore.. . .
In an odd sort of transference that occurs in the wee hours at the computer, Rossmiller sometimes has a sense that she is a man from Lahore. It's bizarre, she knows, but she has become so used to thinking like a Muslim man over the last six years that when she contemplates living in Lahore, it's as a man. I find myself almost looking down on women, she says to herself.
Especially in the cold months of Montana, she can feel the heat of Lahore, practically smell the dirt and the flower farms that stretch for miles. I've adopted this place as mine, she says to herself.
The land is beautiful, the people soulful and dignified, if their Web postings are any indication. Keeping up with the local news, Rossmiller knows the buzz and rhythm of the place, which has begun to feel like home.
In another life, Rossmiller says to herself.
Wrestling with 'why?'One day, Rossmiller's phone rings with an unlikely caller: Debra Burlingame, sister of Charles Burlingame, the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, which was hijacked and flown into the Pentagon on 9/11.
"I just wanted you to know how deeply what you've done has moved me, and how much it means to me," Burlingame says to Rossmiller. Then she adds a question:
"Why do you do what you do?"
Flustered and honored, Rossmiller pauses, then says: "I don't know. The people on 9/11, they're not part of my memories. But I still feel it. I just don't know why."
"G-d bless you," Burlingame tells her, before hanging up.
The why has always been tough for Rossmiller to explain - to her family, to curious outsiders, to herself.
"I'm afraid people think I'm anointing myself as a savior or something," she tells friends. "But I can't give it a label.
"Who is there to understand the way my mind works?"
Certainly no one in Rossmiller's family. Not her best friend, Chris, or anyone else she knows, for that matter.
Some who don't know Rossmiller believe she gets paid for the work. Except for reimbursement for expenses, Rossmiller has not accepted a dime from the FBI. Independent of spirit and will, Rossmiller does not want to be told what to do. Nor does she want to become part of a bureaucracy in which she needs permission and a memo to find terrorists.
Besides, Rossmiller is so far advanced in this work that federal authorities have come to her and taken notes on how she does it.
During a long session with the terrorists one night, as she finds herself once more exhorting others to do their duty against the crusader U.S. military, Rossmiller is hit with a kind of epiphany:
Right now, I don't know what it's going to take to make me stop. Now, I need it. I definitely feed off of it.
So, yes, there is something inside that requires her to continue. But it has a cost.
What I do is lonely sometimes, she says to herself. There's no one to talk to to say, "Oh, G-d, the terrorists were really nasty online today."
Three hundred million Americans saw the towers fall on 9/11. As far as anyone knows, Shannen Rossmiller is the only private U.S. citizen who learned Arabic, lurked on Web sites, and helped capture terrorists, from 2001 until this very minute.
Even she can't cl early say why. But it certainly has made life difficult.
All I know, Rossmiller says, is that if I could go back to pre-9/11 life, I would. I liked life then.
I used to be happy.
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