Jewish World Review Nov. 3, 2004 / 19 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765
Citizens use Internet to spy on, thwart terrorists
By Mike Carter
When it's 4 a.m. in this one-stoplight prairie town, it's 3 p.m. in, say, Karachi, Pakistan, the sweltering hours just before the evening call to prayer. That's when Rossmiller, while her husband and three children sleep, finds the Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards frequented by radical Muslims and jihad warriors are busiest.
It is when Rossmiller pursues her deadly serious hobby: Citizen cyber-spy.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Internet has become sprinkled with self-proclaimed intelligence agents and freelance threat analysts like Rossmiller ordinary civilians who comb Web sites and chat rooms for hints of the enemy's next move. The phenomenon, propelled by the Internet's anonymity and worldwide reach, is unique to the war on terrorism.
A few, like Rossmiller, take their pastime further.
Unencumbered by bureaucracy or by laws requiring warrants or prohibiting entrapment, she and a few others freely infiltrate the enemy's lairs and assess what they find there. In some cases, they even disrupt communications or get people arrested.
But spying can be dangerous business, even more so when the government doesn't officially condone or even know about it. Experts say citizen cyberspies can stumble into risky situations or get in the way of law enforcement. But they also acknowledge people like Rossmiller have good intentions and, occasionally, good luck.
So it was that, on one of Rossmiller's trawls through Web sites with names like bravemuslim.com last fall, she came across a posting by a man calling himself Amir Abdul Rashid. It was clear from the message that Rashid was edging toward the violent fringes of Islam.
Over time, it also became apparent to her that he was an American soldier.
Posing as an Algerian with ties to that country's outlawed Armed Islamic Group, she sent Rashid an e-mail with the subject line "A Call to Jihad." Rashid responded by asking if it was possible that a "brother fighting on the wrong side could defect."
Over a period of four months, Rossmiller drew out Rashid through a series of 27 e-mails. She learned, with growing alarm, that he was a National Guardsman about to be deployed to Iraq. And he appeared willing to share information on American troop vulnerabilities with the enemy. Rossmiller provided the information to the Department of Homeland Security, which passed it to the FBI and the Army.
The arrest in that case of Ryan Anderson, 26, a troubled Muslim convert and a specialist in the Washington state National Guard's 81st Armor Brigade, was splashed across the country's newspapers in February. It was a direct result of Rossmiller's work, and she is expected to be the reluctant star witness at his pending court martial. She testified in a preliminary hearing last month.
Until that hearing, almost nobody in Conrad (population 2,753) knew of Rossmiller's avocation. Townsfolk learned about it only after a wire story appeared in the Great Falls Tribune.
Rossmiller said she never wanted the publicity all she wanted was to help stop terrorists. Now, people stop her at the grocery and wave her down at the local coffee shop to thank or congratulate her.
When asked, however, nobody's quite sure how she got involved or exactly what she did.
"I don't think people really know what to think of this," Rossmiller said.
Even before being outed as a cyber-spy, Rossmiller was a high-profile member of this farming community: She's the town judge, a paralegal who was appointed to the post four years ago.
Conrad, surrounded by farmlands that roll, virtually uninterrupted, to Glacier National Park some 60 miles northwest, is home to a large community of Hutterites, a pacifist Christian sect similar to the Amish. The surrounding county also hosts 17 intercontinental strategic missile sites operated out of nearby Malmstrom Air Force Base.
Rossmiller, 34, was born and raised in Conrad, her father a farmer and her mother a special-education teacher. A former high-school cheerleader and honors student, she now draws on her legal-research skills in her quest.
Rossmiller said there is no mystery to how and why she developed her avocation. It traces to Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001.
She was bedridden with a fractured pelvis and felt helpless as the terrorist attacks unfolded.
"I had to do something," Rossmiller said over lattes and lunch at the Lobby, a kitschy restaurant two doors down from the city offices on Main Street.
She started pulling random items out of her purse: her checkbook, a wallet, a key fob, all adorned with the American flag. "This is who I am," she said. "When President Bush asked for a dollar for the Afghan children's fund, I sent $100. I can't help it.
"Besides, my husband wouldn't let me join the National Guard."
Her interest in the attacks led her to the Internet, where, in discussion groups and on bulletin boards, she met others driven to know more about those responsible.
It wasn't long before she and a few others formed a loose-knit group. Alliances evolved over time. The goal, however, was clear from the start: Disrupt terrorists. The group called itself 7Seas Global Intelligence Security Team, and its research began extending beyond the day's headlines.
"By the time things hit the mainstream media, a deed was pretty much done," explained Brent Astley, an unemployed physicist and software designer near Toronto, and a member of the 7Seas team. "We decided to take it to the next level."
7Seas has grown into a sophisticated intelligence group, members say.
Initially, the group gathered information and tried to predict when another terrorist attack might occur. Members posted their findings on a Web site called itshappening.com, a bulletin board of like-minded armchair intelligence neophytes. The first attempts were amateurish, and Astley concedes a critic's point that 7Seas was prone to crying wolf.
"They are prone to read an awful lot into very little," said Neil Doyle, a freelance journalist who has written extensively on international terrorism.
"We've evolved," Astley said. "Some of us are quite adept."
The 7Seas operation has become more sophisticated, Rossmiller and Astley say. Its members now post their work and share thoughts in a private, secure area of the Internet. In the meantime, members have put together a huge database of research and news stories about terrorist groups and individuals.
Occasionally, the group takes its findings public. On May 12, 2002, 7Seas posted a news release stating it had correctly warned of bombings that day in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that killed an Australian man. The group referenced a rough and garbled translation of an Arabic Web site that 7Seas had posted four days earlier on itshappening.com.
Rossmiller said she and others have developed contacts in intelligence agencies in several countries, and have passed on significant information.
It's hard to measure her claim. The Department of Justice did not respond to requests to discuss 7Seas or the private-intelligence phenomenon. Likewise, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service declined to comment.
But FBI spokesman Bob Wright, a special agent in Salt Lake City the field office responsible for FBI activities in Montana said the agency would not discourage individuals like Rossmiller.
"We've always relied on our good relationship with citizens as our eyes and ears in the community," Wright said. "This is just a new twist on an old theme. It's sort of like a cyber Neighborhood Watch."
Cyberspies' tactics are painstaking and sometimes bold.
The 7Seas Web site www.7-seas.net claims the group can provide "round-the-clock" threat analysis and "real time terrorist information, intelligence and strategic analysis to law enforcement and military agencies both within the United States and internationally."
Rossmiller took a few hours one morning to demonstrate. Over the past two years, she explained, she has invented and developed several characters whose identities she assumes when visiting Jihadi chat rooms and bulletin boards. Nobody in 7Seas speaks Arabic, and Rossmiller might spend weeks translating a posting using software and a dictionary.
The details of the personalities she assumes are just as painstakingly assembled. Their street addresses are real. She knows the address of the nearest mosque and the name of its imam. A message pops up on her computer to remind her when it would be prayer time, so she remembers to stop what she's doing.
She has software that "proxies" her computer address to that area, making it appear to all but the most savvy Internet user that she's physically there. It helps that her husband, Randy, is a computer technician.
Rossmiller spends hours researching the philosophical underpinnings of terrorist groups. If she were a Kashmir radical, she points out, her motivations would differ from those of a Saudi Arabian or Afghan.
Her postings can be brazen. Rossmiller said the goal is to flush out terrorists, and being timid or obtuse doesn't get it done.
"I've found that the only way to get information is to be a little bolder than they are," she said. "This is not conventional. There is no textbook for this."
There are seven members of 7Seas: Four in the U.S. and one each in Canada, Australia and Singapore. Rossmiller declined to identify the others, aside from Astley. But she said they are corporate and personal security experts, a former detective who speaks seven languages (although not Arabic), a "global media" specialist, a real-estate agent and an architect.
For a brief period in 2002, 7Seas was incorporated and its members hoped to land a government contract. But a falling-out with a founding member delayed those plans, and Rossmiller let the corporation die before it ever made a dime.
She said, however, that its members hope one day to make a profit as security and intelligence consultants even though the job has risks.
Conrad police officer Carl Suta said the FBI ordered Rossmiller placed under police protection after a suspicious telephone call to Conrad City Hall on May 18.
Officers believed the call may have come from someone in Canada with whom Rossmiller had been in contact while using the same alias she used to trap Anderson.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, private security and intelligence sites on terrorism have sprouted on the Internet. They range from the useful to the absurd: One site, http://trackingthethreat.com, contains a remarkable database of known terrorists and groups.
Then there's http://stevequayle.com, whose founder is a longtime survivalist, talk-radio host and conspiracy theorist. Quayle's "global terror alert" can be found alongside links to his research into our 36-foot-tall ancestors and a conspiracy-fueled treatise on missing Soviet scientists.
Two years ago, a freelance intelligence agent in Britain named Glen Jenvey obtained secret videotapes of an Islamic cleric in London named Abu Hamza al-Masri and a young Seattle acolyte named James Ujaama talking about jihad. Those tapes were later used to prosecute Ujaama, who had helped plan to set up a terrorist training camp in Bly, Ore. Ujaama pleaded guilty and has agreed to testify against Abu Hamza, who is charged with conspiring to help al-Qaida.
Last month, the operator of a homeless shelter in Albuquerque, N.M., Jeremy Reynalds, infiltrated and then exposed several jihad Web sites unwittingly hosted by American Internet providers. Reynalds, an associate of Jenvey, said he has spent more than two years posing as a terrorist to get inside some of the sites.
"This is a really intriguing phenomenon," said retired Air Force Gen. Todd Stewart, the executive director of the National Academic Consortium for Homeland Security, an alliance of colleges and universities conducting research on homeland-security issues.
"What you're seeing is people taking to heart the calls for increased vigilance," he said.
The question is, when does vigilance become vigilantism? Stewart and others say that remains to be seen.
"I think we'll find that this is all part of the debate over how secure is secure enough" in the post-Sept. 11 world, Stewart said. "We have yet to determine the balance between personal security and personal freedom."
Cyberspies avoid bureaucracy, but they can land in trouble.
Still, there is precedent for citizens to take up spying for the common good, even when it stretches the law, said Steven Emerson, a journalist whose 1992 book "American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us" took on new significance after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"If you uncover some wrongdoing or illegality, then I think this sort of thing is a public service, really," Emerson said.
Consider, he said, the seminal investigative work of white Texas writer John Howard Griffin, who tinted his skin and chronicled the life of a black man in the Deep South in his book "Black Like Me." Griffin's book was published in 1961.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor who has written about what he calls "white-hat hackers" citizens who use the Internet to spy on or disrupt terrorism said the phenomenon is a natural extension of the war on terrorism.
"It's not unlike Newton's Law for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction," he said. "Terrorism is decentralized. You would expect the reaction to it to be decentralized, as well."
Individuals are able, in some instances, to leapfrog the efforts of the federal agencies whose job it is to protect the homeland.
"They are not strangled by a bureaucracy" or the requirements of a court of law, he said.
The downside, he said, is that private citizens don't have the legal immunities that police do. An officer acting in good faith, even if he makes a mistake, is difficult to sue. Not so for a private citizen, Reynolds said.
And there could be other, more serious, legal consequences.
"Computers make it possible to play spy from your home, and that can be good," he said. "But remember, you are still being a spy, and that carries risks. People might try to kill you. You might violate the law. You might screw things up."
Wright, the FBI agent, said, "It's probably true that at times we will be working at cross-purposes."
Indeed, one of the points Rossmiller and others who play these spy games concede is that they can't always tell who is who on the Internet.
Astley, the 7Seas member in Canada, said he was once warned away from a target by "U.S. law enforcement." He backed off without asking why.
Elizabeth Bancroft, the executive director of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers in Washington, D.C., said the role of citizen spies she calls them "assets" has been "a fixture of imaginative minds for decades.
"The Internet has only brought forth more gamesmanship and role-playing. ... But hundreds of Walter Mittys and James Bond Juniors exist, and play their hands with vigor, cloaked by the anonymity of the Net.
"One of the many features of a free society is having a bit of fun," she said. "Should they happen to flush out a terrorist or two we say bravo."
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© 2004, Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services