Montana Mother and Judge Turned Cyber Spy
James Carafano /
On Thursday, you’ll hear a story at Heritage that you won’t believe is real.
In 2007, writer Jack Hitt did a profile for Wired magazine on someone who sounded like the most unlikely cyber vigilante imaginable—Shannen Rossmiller. Hitt’s article describes Rossmiller pretty much the same way others do:
Rossmiller grew up on a Montana wheat farm. She is blond and slim: When she was a cheerleader in high school, she typically wound up at the top of the human pyramid. Her husband runs a wireless Internet company, and they have three children. After college, she was appointed a local judge in a small Montana town.
It was a description that didn’t seem to match that of a woman who, after 9/11, would decide to dedicate herself to hunting down terrorists online.
For Rossmiller, it all began in November 2001, when the mother of three came across a news report on terrorist use of the Internet and how Washington was struggling to keep up with all the activity. She decided to check out one of the militant websites mentioned in the report. “I entered another world when I logged on to that site for the first time,” Rossmiller recalled. “I did not know Arabic, so I clicked away at random, looking at featured pictures depicting such things as dead bodies lying around in the aftermath of a car bombing and other atrocities.”
Once in, the only barrier between Rossmiller and the terrorists was a foreign language, but she could fix that. Rossmiller took Arabic lessons. She also found a translation website that helped give her enough command of the language that she could carry on an online conversation. Then she started posting on Internet forums and message boards and conversing in chat rooms. Finally, she started creating terrorist personas and went looking for bad guys.
Rossmiller certainly was not the first or only self-appointed cyber vigilante. After 9/11, there were many “sunshine patriots” who rushed to the sound of the digital guns, wanting to join the fight against evildoers online. Many were amateurs—some gifted, many not. Some were simply opportunists. Others, like SITE and MEMRI, have become established players in the community of open-source, private intelligence groups gathering information, playing an important role in helping the U.S. win the war online.
Rosmiller’s entering one sphere of the online world was not news. Beyond passion and a modicum of skill at navigating the Internet, there is no limit to who can fight online. What was newsworthy was that Shannen Rossmiller used these skills to help put terrorist in jail. Her investigations led to at least two terrorism-related convictions and leads in dozens of other cases.
Join us on Thursday as Rossmiller discuss her new book, The Unexpected Patriot, and shares the story of her journey from mother, wife, and judge to cyber vigilante.