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By day, Shannen Rossmiller is a mother of three and a part-time judge in a small town in Montana.
As night falls, she develops another persona — she poses as an al Qaeda operative online and searches for would-be terrorists.
Rossmiller, 36, began trolling the Internet for potential terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Stunned and angered, she read the Koran, studied radical Islamic culture, and learned enough Arabic to lurk in chat rooms.
“It was a process that evolved for me where the curiosity of looking around on the Internet for jihadi, Islamist extremist individuals,” she said. “It’s evolved now into something that is my own playbook on how to do this, and it worked.”
Rossmiller’s work first gained national attention when her online sleuthing helped federal agents set up stings that snagged two American extremists.
The first one was Washington state National Guardsman Ryan G. Anderson, a Muslim convert who wanted to give al Qaeda information about how to destroy U.S. Army tanks and Humvees, according to court records.
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It’s Erin Brockovich meets Lara Croft.
That’s the pitch, and it’s making the Hollywood rounds. The subject is Shannen Rossmiller, a real-life rural Montana mother of three who has melded her computer skills and knowledge of Arabic to infiltrate terrorist cells on the Internet, most recently helping the FBI get the goods on a terrorist hellbent on blowing up sections of the Alaska Pipeline.
Rossmiller started as a brilliant 29-year-old municipal judge in a Montana farming community. Truamatized by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she taught herself Arabic and created online pseudonyms, pretending to be sympathetic to Al-Qaeda plotters in order to lure them into revealing information leading to their capture.
Josh Schreff, who owns the book, movie and TV rights to Rossmiller’s story, says Rossmiller’s tips have helped the FBI break up as many as 200 terrorist plots around the globe. The two biggest federal cases in the U.S. traceable to her investigative work were that of the Alaska pipeline engineer, Michael Curtis Reynolds, convicted earlier this month, and the 2004 trial of Ryan Anderson, a National Guardsman who’s serving five life sentences for treason, convicted of funneling Army secrets to Al-Qaeda.
Rossmiller was a key witness in both cases, and she and her husband are licensed to carry guns because terrorists have made attempts on her life.
Her main weapon is the Internet, but the bureau flies her all over the country, making her a part of regular top-secret FBI intelligence briefings and of FBI interrogations of suspected terrorists, which she monitors behind a two-way mirror.
Rossmiller is a genuine volunteer. She’s not on the FBI payroll; her income comes from working for a local attorney.