Episode Show Notes



JACK: How did I get here? I’ve got such a strange job, you know? I never imagined I’d be a podcaster. For one, I failed English class at least twice in college, so there’s no way I’d ever be a writer, so I thought. Sometimes I like to step back every now and then and just wonder what crazy life events happened to me to put me in this place I’m in right now? [MUSIC] Let’s look at 9/11, for example. On 9/11, I woke up early and took a shower, and I walked over to my grandma’s house. She was gonna drive me to go see the FBI. The thing is, the FBI had a job-fair-type event and was recruiting people who were into computers. I was into computers. I wasn’t exactly thrilled about working for the FBI, but it could be a great adventure. Maybe I could be a spy or something. Alright, yeah, cool. Screw it; let’s go. Let’s go apply and see what happens. Come on, grandma, wake up. Let’s go meet with the FBI and see if they’ll hire me. But while I was waiting for her to get ready, I turned on the TV and the world was changing in front of my eyes. We were watching the TV on live in front of us. We saw a plane crash into a building in New York City. I’ve never seen anything like that on live TV before. This was wild. We were stunned by the events, but we still hopped in the car and drove to this job fair event. When we got there, the FBI wasn’t there. The job fair was a total dud. The FBI never even took my resume to look at it later, and I never tried to apply to work there again. I don’t blame them for not showing up. That was a crazy day. But it does make me wonder about an alternate universe, one where I became a fed and I listened to, I don’t know, your podcast instead of you listening to mine.

(INTRO): [INTRO MUSIC] These are true stories from the dark side of the internet. I’m Jack Rhysider. This is Darknet Diaries. [INTRO MUSIC ENDS]

JACK: On September 11, 2001, Shannen Rossmiller was watching the news just like I was. She was watching it from her bed, though. Planes were flying into buildings. What? How? Who? Why? All our heads were swirling with a million questions that morning. It was a tragic event. A terrorist attack on US soil? Shannen was transfixed by her TV. She was in bed that morning recovering from a fractured pelvis. She was a tough woman. [MUSIC] Being stuck in bed meant she was really injured, because she just didn’t let smaller injuries slow her down. She had a lot of grit and determination. She had three young children and a husband named Randy. He was a computer technician who had his own business fixing up computers and setting up networks. Shannen was thirty-two years old. She was a municipal court judge when 9/11 happened, which is a pretty surprising role to have at thirty-two years old. It just speaks to her drive to learn and succeed. As a judge, Shannen typically saw cases regarding traffic violations, thefts, and other minor offenses. She was an important person doing an important job. Now, this was all in a little town called Conrad in Montana.

It’s a small place; we’re talking less than three thousand people live there, but it’s your typical small American town with locals who all know and support each other. It’s a nice, quiet place to live. So, Shannen is a super-focused woman. She absorbs information crazy fast and likes a challenge probably a bit more than most of us, learning new things and pushing herself mentally. It’s a part of what she strives on. But when she tried to go back to work after seeing what happened on 9/11, she just couldn’t shake those events from her head. [MUSIC] Someone attacked the United States. They flew planes into the Twin Towers. Who would do that? What were their ideologies? She wanted to understand what could have driven someone to do this. But more than all of that, it was a tragic event. A lot of people died. She wanted justice for those who died. I mean, that’s kind of what she worked her whole career on, right, being a judge and issuing justice. But how do you punish the people who flew planes into the buildings? They died in the crash. It was a very confusing time and we were all seeking guidance here, something to help us take those next steps in life. It’s like we all felt stuck, not knowing what to do next.

9/11 put Shannen right in the middle of an intersection of being a proud American wanting to do something about it, being a judge who brings justice to people, and being endlessly curious. This added up to push her down a new road in life and shape her into becoming someone she never imagined herself being. Now, the internet back in 2001 was not the same as it is now. AOL and dial-up was still how most people accessed the internet then, and it was slow, like really slow. Instagram and Tinder could not have been possible then since each image would have taken three minutes to load, and everyone would have just got bored. But it was fine because we didn’t know what fast was and we were just going online to read things or check e-mail or message other people, not look at photos or videos. Now, Shannen’s husband Randy was a computer guy, so they had computers in the house and were pretty connected, and she’d get on them sometimes and check it out. But 9/11 brought her to the computer much more. [MUSIC] She had a lot of questions, and there were people online talking about it, too. So, she’d click around on forums and websites and chatrooms just reading more, reading everything there was about the subject, learning about radical Islam, jihadists, and terrorism. Early mornings were her time.

Randy and the kids were still asleep. She’d get up and head downstairs into the little room that they used for a computer room and power up the computer and wait the five minutes for it to boot up. She’d read all the news she could about the attacks on the Twin Towers, and she’s got one of those brains where everything she reads just sinks in and stays there. So, she’d reading and absorbing everything. Then, one month after the attack, Osama Bin Laden recorded a video claiming responsibility for the attacks. He was the leader of a global terrorist group, Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda was a new word for most of us. We had never heard of this before, and she was learning about their affiliation with Islam and their radical ideologies. Al-Qaeda had wanted the US military out of the Middle East, and they were willing to go to some pretty scary lengths to get their message heard. It appeared that the United States had a new enemy to deal with, one they didn’t expect or know how to handle. The United States was forcing their military into places all over the world, perhaps interfering in areas they shouldn’t have. So, the people of the internet were expressing a variety of opinions on the whole event. Some people were sympathetic to Al-Qaeda. The internet was a hotbed of chatrooms and forums where people expressed their opinions. Online, everyone is anonymous, even in the early days of the internet.

In fact, this was a big calling for a lot of people who had extreme views and wanted to share them. It made it easy to go online and be threatening without it coming back to your real life. Shannen heard the name of a website on a news report. It said there were chat rooms attached that people were using. She couldn’t help herself from having a look. [MUSIC] Is this where people who hate the United States were hanging out? She got on the website and was looking around, reading the words of people from all over the world. Some expressed sympathy. Some had hatred behind their words. She was fascinated by it and spent hours just reading and taking it all in, trying to understand everything she didn’t understand. A lot of it was in Arabic, too, and she had to translate it. By late 2002, Shannen had found some friends online, other people from around the world who shared her views. Osama Bin Laden was still on the loose, and it didn’t seem like any justice was happening for those who died. [MUSIC] She eventually gravitated towards people who were interested in the same thing as her. They were all interested in what Al-Qaeda was doing and wanted to share interesting links with each other about it. They formed a group and called themselves the 7-Seas Global Intelligence Security Team to represent their seven members from seven different countries.

The group would get together online and share interesting news articles or forum posts from within more underground forums. Some of the members spoke Arabic and could spot things easier. This introduced Shannen to some deeper conversations that were happening around Islamic extremism. These chatrooms and forum posts were often in Arabic, and Shannen, being from Montana, did not speak Arabic, but she wanted to speak it so she could research all this better. She really wanted to understand their culture, so she started learning little bits of Arabic here and there, at least how to read it. Now, even though she was teaming up with the 7-Seas group to share information, she’d often stray off on her own like a lone wolf. She’d explore a lot on her own without telling the group what she found or what she was up to, and she also wasn’t entirely upfront with Randy, her husband, about what she was doing online, too. He knew she was interested in this, but he didn’t really know how obsessed she was with it. Every now and then she’d find a forum post or a person in a chatroom who would just give her the shivers. When people are chatting online, it’s hard to know when to take them seriously. People joke around a lot. There are trolls everywhere.

But Shannen could sense when someone was being serious and would sometimes see a post that looked threatening. Like, a person might actually be in danger from this post, right? This person posting it might be really dangerous and try to hurt someone. What do you do about that? This really bothered her. She never forgot about the lives lost in 9/11. As a proud American, Al-Qaeda seemed to be her enemy now, too. But at the same time, she was like a moth drawn to the flame. You know the saying; keep your friends close but your enemies closer. [MUSIC] She was realizing her enemies were right there on the other side of her screen. The internet is a way to bring everyone closer to each other. These enemies weren’t in some faraway land or in a cave. They were right there in her little computer room, downstairs in her computer. That proximity intrigued her to no end. She wanted to talk with them, and they were right there. With them being so close, she got to talk with them. But it’s strange, you know? Like, what is she gonna say? Hey, listen up, you punks. I’m a respected judge, a mother of three, proud citizen of the United States, and I don’t like the tone of your voice. No, she knew that being herself in this situation would get her nowhere. Her IRL status had no power here. But on the internet, you can be anyone.

So, to get closer to her enemies, she knew she had to be someone she wasn’t. Now, I want to imagine she disguised herself up by throwing on some camouflage clothes and covering herself in mud, but in reality she just picked a username and registered on the forum or chatroom and acted like an Islamic extremist herself, one of them. But it’s actually more complicated than that. Keep in mind, she had been lurking on these forums and chatrooms for months now, and she was analyzing hundreds of posts, thousands of messages, and was getting fairly well-versed in Arabic. She could understand some conversations without needing to run it through a translator. This let her pick up on little nuances such as how people talk or when they talk, and certain quotes that people often use. Shannen tried to fit in by talking like them, mimicking their traits. These individuals typically held extreme views of Islam. Some were claiming to be members of Al-Qaeda or supportive of them, and they were justifying and planning violence against Western countries. Shannen is such an interesting character. I’ve e-mailed her a few times asking for an interview, but sadly she died before I was able to get her on the show. However, the podcast SpyCast did an interview with her back in 2011, and here she is explaining what she did.

SHANNEN: Well, one of the things I’ve got is I have notebook after notebook after notebook, and they’re all dated in chronology for the different things that I’m doing at the time. So, they’re my records. They’re my records of the identities I use, that I create, that has the different backgrounds as far as their cultural, their tribal, their clan, any of their — anything that I need to make that individual identity have all the appearances of being a real person sitting behind a computer screen in whatever part of the world I’m purporting to be from.

JACK: She was pretty meticulous at building believable personas to act like in these areas of the internet, building backstories and keeping records of who this person is. She looked up how to hide her IP address so it didn’t look like she was connecting to these sites from her Montana home. She learned what a proxy was and how to connect to one and appear to be coming from Canada. So, Shannen made sure that when she was online, her virtual location matched up with the fake identity that she was using on the forums. She knew she was going into the belly of the beast, and wanted to be extra careful so that her family would be safe. But here’s the thing; in the wild world of the internet, you don’t have those usual cues to tell if someone is lying or not, no facial expresions, no tone of voice. It’s just words, black and white on a screen. That just makes everything way more complicated. It might sound fairly easy now, but back then, not many people were making up fake personas and connecting through proxies to infiltrate a terrorist group. Shannen was doing stuff on her own, treading new and shaky ground. She was entering a dark and dangerous part of the internet, and she was well aware that what she was doing wasn’t exactly the safest bet, but she couldn’t help herself.

[MUSIC] Once she took that leap, there was no turning back. One person who became very interesting to Shannen was a guy who went by the username Abu Khadija. Now, he was a person who had a history of terrorist activity. She found him online and saw he was actively contributing to the Jihad Encyclopedia, and she discovered he was connected to Abu Hamza. He was an Islamic preacher who wore a prosthetic hook on his left arm. He was involved in all sorts of suspicious terrorist activities in the UK and the US. Shannen discovered that Abu Khadija’s real name was Oussama Abdullah Kassir. He was known and respected in this online community that she wanted to be involved with. So, she wanted to get connected with him because maybe if he trusted her, she could get some information that was useful. She wasn’t exactly sure, but thought to try. So, Shannen made a plan to get closer to this Kassir guy. Shannen created an online persona, calling herself Abu Zeida. It’s common for jihadists and Al-Qaeda members to use fake names, and this one fit right in. She pretended that she was a recruiter for a new group of Islamic guerilla fighters based in Canada. Now Shannen, acting as Abu Zeida, was able to attract Kassir with her posts. They started e-mailing each other, but she was like, oh, no, shh; don’t talk here. It’s not safe. E-mail leaves a record. Let’s move our chats to a safer place, one where we can delete the messages as soon as they’re read. Kassir was interested.

Shannen suggested that they set up an e-mail account that they both could access, and to send messages to one another, one of them could start an e-mail and just leave it in the drafts folder unsent, and then the other one can log in, see the message, read it, and then delete it. Poof, no trace of the message anywhere. Kassir not only agreed to this idea, but actually gave her his username and password to his e-mail. He said, hey, just leave draft messages in my inbox and I’ll read them and delete them as soon as I see them. She was astonished that he gave her his password. I can only imagine she must have cheered. Yeah! I mean, yeah, okay, we’ll use your e-mail. Her husband Randy had no idea she was doing any of this. So, Shannen started chatting back and forth with Kassir from within his drafts folder. [MUSIC] But at the same time, she could see every e-mail coming and going from his inbox. It was unbelievable for her. She was saving everything she could. She just infiltrated an Islamic extremist influencer’s e-mail account. Unreal. She kept this going, chatting with him covertly but then snooping on his e-mails, but she really wasn’t finding anything incriminating on him. There was no smoking gun of things he’s done or plans to conduct more terrorist actions, but he was contributing to the Jihadist Encyclopedia, and extremists respected him.

So she thought maybe he could still be useful somehow, and kept him close. [MUSIC] By 2003, she had created a number of fake personas on these forums and chatrooms. She was still using that Abu Zeida persona from time to time, building up its history and credibility. One of the things she tried to do with it is get it associated with the Army of the Righteous, or in Arabic it’s called ‘Lashkar-e-Taiba’. This is a known jihadist militant organization. She figured if she could get Abu Zeida in the Army of the Righteous, she might be able to get info on what the next terrorist attack might be. So, when Army of the Righteous would do some terrorist attack, she’d just claim that she was part of it and she was there for it or helped out in some way. Or I should say, her made-up persona Abu Zeida was claiming to be part of it. She kept up her relationship with Kassir. So, all this was building up her social credit in this community. So, with this persona being more established, she was ready to take things a step further. She wanted people to tell her things, incriminating things. What she really wanted to do was stop the next terrorist attack or find info on someone that could lead to an arrest. So, she really wanted someone to share with her a plan or admit to something they’ve done so she could take action.

But it’s hard to know if someone is telling the truth online. There’s a lot of noise and it’s hard to find the signal. She also didn’t want to encourage anyone to do anything, so it became a really tricky dance, chatting with everyone to try to get the right information. Shannen had a distinct advantage here; she was a court judge and she knew the law. Ultimately she wanted a prosecution, charges, and potential convictions against people who were planning on violence and death. She knew if this ever went to trial, the way she obtained the information needed to be legal, and she needed to absolutely make sure that she didn’t stray into entrapment. She got a plan on how to navigate this dark part of the internet. [MUSIC] It was a pretty elaborate plan and she needed help to do it, so she turned back to her group, the 7-Seas, and looks for help there. One member of the 7-Seas group that she got on well with was a guy named Brent Ashley. He was based in Ontario, Canada, and was a nuclear physicist and a software developer. They both had similar opinions that these terror groups should be stopped. He, too, thought that working online together could enable them to spot patterns, maybe uncover possible threats, and then warn the authorities who could step in and stop more horrible things from happening.

So, between them, they came up with a plan utilizing Brent’s software developer skills. They called it Operation Whirlpool, and this is how it worked. The plan was to put some malware on a potential terrorist’s computer, a key-logger, something that watched every key stroke that the target typed and reported back everything to Shannen and Brent. They could disguise it to look like a document where you needed to open it to read it, right? But it was really an executable program and once triggered, the key-logger would then run silently in the background, recording everything and uploading it. The user would see the document and be unaware that there’s malware still running. They were hoping this might get them chat logs or private messages that could be incriminating evidence. But yeah, I mean, this is snooping 2003-style, but still, it’s snooping, and they had to be careful because she was a sitting US judge. If she somehow put her malware on another American’s computer who was not a terrorist, it could be the end of her career. So, she wanted to try to only target non-Americans. So, Brent finished up this little spy program, and together they started thinking up ways on how to get it onto a target’s computer. The answer, Shannen thought, was simple.

Self-training manuals were real popular with radical Islamists. The Jihadist Encyclopedia is a huge document, like over 8,000 pages huge, and there are chapters on everything from explosives to tactics to weapons and close fighting. It was something these guys followed and referred to a lot. So, Shannen and Brent decided to add this program to the encyclopedia. They packaged it up, nestled neatly inside a zip file, and called it something interesting to entice people to open it, then uploaded it to the Jihad Encyclopedia and waited. [MUSIC] They needed a victim to come and get it from the encyclopedia and open the zip file and run the program. Then they could see everything that person typed on their computer. Operation Whirlpool was underway. The eagle has left the nest. She started thinking about how she could get people to download, but just putting it up there didn’t quite attract anyone to grab it and look at it, so she needed to come up with ways to get people to download it specifically and run it. She thought about using her fake identity, Abu Zeida, to somehow trick someone to go download the malware and run it, but she didn’t want this to backfire and maybe it resulted in her being discovered and her identity is burned. She wanted to be extra sneaky here.

Then she remembered her friend Kassir. He was respected in that community and was a regular contributor to the Jihad Encyclopedia. Kassir is influential enough to get people, many people, to download this file. She had full access to his e-mail, but didn’t have access to his account on the radical Islamic forum. She was watching him for months on how he acted on the forums. [MUSIC] Shannen decided to act like Kassir. She created a new username on the forum, same as Kassir’s, but with a 1 instead of the I. It was one letter off, and she did that in hopes that nobody would notice. Then she dressed up the user profile to look just like Kassir, and of course she did all this through a proxy. Shannen posted as Kassir with a 1 in three of the most popular forums. She simply said that the explosives manual inside the encyclopedia has been updated and attached is the updated version. People didn’t notice the difference in screen names. The ruse was working. Users were clicking and downloading it, trusting it because it appeared to be coming from Kassir, a trusted figure in the community. Operation Whirlpool was working. Now, I don’t know where the real Kassir was at this point, because he kinda went quiet around the same time. Abu Hanza was getting into trouble, and it might have spooked Kassir to just lay low for a while. So, he wasn’t even around to have noticed this or to warn people, and that worked very well for Shannen and Brent.

The software Brent wrote recorded key strokes, e-mail addresses, password information, and that information could be used to see what those people were doing on their machines when there was no one looking. So, the two of them were watching the view count of the post go up and the download count on their file go up, and they were just waiting to see if anyone would install the program. Brent had it set up so all the data from the target’s machine would be uploaded straight into Brent’s database so they could see what was happening. It was a clever little app. So, they watched the database, waiting for activity. [MUSIC] Suddenly, something showed up. They snagged someone. Data was showing up in the database, and more data started showing up. Their malware was being installed on a few computers. It was working. But now they had to start sorting through this data that was coming in. They were seeing passwords and usernames and had to figure out what site was this even for, and more stuff was coming in as they were trying to sort it. Soon they were overwhelmed with data. Every keystroke was sent to them, and they could see half of every chat, e-mail, forum message, even Google searches or video games commands. It was an eye-opening view into who the readers of the Jihadist Encyclopedia were. One guy they started watching stood out. He went by the name of Samir. He had really captured Shannen’s attention. Brent had a way to deactivate the malware on victim’s computers, and they wanted to focus on Samir.

So, he disabled the key-logger on everyone else’s computer just so they could look at what Samir was doing. [MUSIC] Samir was a Sunni Muslim of Palestinian descent, and he was a respected TV journalist known for his work at Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV, too. He even interviewed Osama Bin Laden in 1998. But what intrigued Shannen about him is he appeared to have quite a lot of information about Al-Qaeda. Was he connected to them in some way? It wasn’t clear, but she was suspicious that Samir might be working for her enemy, and he might known Osama Bin Laden. The whole US military is looking for Osama, so she was definitely glued to Samir for almost a year, intercepting and translating his communications. It was a lot of work. At the same time, Shannen starts talking with this guy named Ayad Yolcu. He seemed to know people who conducted the 9/11 attacks. By this point, since Kassir is still quiet, she can keep up using his username on the forum. Nobody had noticed there was a 1 instead of an I, so she just kept posting as Kassir, drawing in certain people and having private chats with this lookalike account. She starts messaging this Ayad guy as Kassir, and it was working quite well. It also helped that she could confirm that she really was Kassir because she had access to his e-mail. After gaining some trust with Ayad, she sent him the malware that Brent made and asked him to take a look at it and open it, and he did. He installed the key-logger on his computer, and now she could see what he was typing and every little thing he did on his computer. Keep in mind, Shannen had to play multiple characters, and this meant choosing her words very slowly and carefully.

SHANNEN: Since 9/11, I took on the task of learning the Arabic language, and it’s still an ongoing process, but it’s fascinating. I just absolutely love it, and it’s a challenge. As a female, of course the identities that I’ve created and operated under in the various different internet sites over the years, they’re in — they’re as males, as radicalized jihadist males. So, obviously I couldn’t speak, couldn’t get on and be chatting verbally with any of these people. So, everything I’ve done has been either in writing and translating and reading, which has served me well because not being a native speaker or having had a whole host of different formal training — I have had intense language training, but that being able to just read it and write it, take my time in constructing my replies and what I want to say and how I want to proceed with any given communication stream that I’m working in, it’s worked out well that — the fact that I don’t need to speak it because frankly, who would I speak with? They wouldn’t speak to me, so…

JACK: She sat at her computer downstairs in the computer room in rural Montana watching all the messages coming in, seeing what people were typing. She was trying to put all these pieces together, but it was a lot of work. She was looking for any intent to harm so she could act on that. There was certainly a lot of data here now, and it was just a matter of finding the right stuff. Obviously things people say in private is a lot more serious than whatever they post publicly or in chatrooms. While Operation Whirlpool hummed along, Shannen was still wandering around these chatrooms and forums, and one board was called Brave Muslims. It usually buzzed in Arabic, but in October 2003, she spotted a new post in English. [MUSIC] It stood out. The user said their name was Amir Abdul Rashid, and he was hinting at ties to Al-Qaeda and that he was making big plans. The ‘big plans’ part was suspicious to her. Shannen was very curious about him. He said that he was their brother from the far side of the world, but he would be closer to them soon. The more Rashid’s message evolved, the more uneasy she got. He was going on talking about defecting to the other side.

Shannen felt something serious in his tone, so she replies to him saying his plans sound interesting. By this point her personas were pretty well-established, and it made it easy for him to believe her. She was posing as a recruiter and organizer for Al-Qaeda. She used an authoritative tone and tells him to contact her for an order on how to move forward. Rashid was quick off the mark. He was excited to be contacted by an Al-Qaeda recruiter and was eager to get things moving. He took Shannen’s bait, hook, line, and sinker. He says he’s about to enter the warzone and will be bearing the arms of the enemy. He’s just converted to Islam and is very against the war in Iraq which had kicked off in March that year, but he needs cash to get his genius plan off the ground. Shannen asks for more information, and what he tells her makes her blood run cold. [MUSIC] This guy Rashid was a US citizen and an active member of the US Army National Guard’s 81st Brigade. Someone in the US military is planning a terrorist strike? Against what? Who? When? Oh, this is not good, she thought. She does some more sleuthing on him and figures out his IP address and e-mail address, and from there she’s able to discover that Rashid’s real name is Ryan Anderson.

He’s twenty-six years old and stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington State, just outside Tacoma. All her internal alarm bells were ringing. This was what she was working towards, but she needed to remain calm and know for certain that he’s planning something serious. So, she keeps the conversation going. She learned that his brigade was going to deploy to Iraq in a few months. When he said he would be with them soon, he wasn’t joking. She talks with him more and more, recording all the conversations. He said he liked guns and was a master army sniper with exceptional skills. While all this seemed very urgent, Shannen also knew it’s very delicate, so she played it very slow and methodical. She didn’t want to scare him off. She continues talking with him for two whole months, gaining more trust, gaining more information. Here, I’ll let Shannen explain how it all happened.

SHANNEN: He stumbled into an Arabic site speaking English, so immediately he caught my eye. I’m thinking, well, we’re speaking Arabic here. Who’s this guy speaking English? So, one of the first things I always do is I go to and try and determine where their IP address might lead me, whether it appears as though there’s any other proxy elements in it. As it turned out, he traced right into Seattle. I had him within a two-to-four-block area radius in Seattle. As I — the further I looked, it appeared that he was in the National Guard and — anyway, as it turned out, he had converted to Islam after 9/11 and had, since that time, been seeking and becoming more radicalized. What he was trying to do was he wanted to defect to Al-Qaeda. He was offering up his role as a tank commander, the classified specs of the Abrams tanks, as well as troop locations and other things that he was continuing to provide me in order to continue to prove his salt or his worth to whom he believed to be an Al-Qaeda operative, which was the identity I was operating under.

JACK: Shannen eventually had enough information to contact the feds. She goes to Homeland Security thinking they’ll know exactly what to do, but they don’t take her seriously. She tries to show them evidence, but they’re just like, eh, go show it to the FBI. She’s torn because she didn’t want to admit that she was the one that infiltrated these forums herself and was getting all this information because of the malware that she planted on different jihadist’s computers. So, she felt confused about how much to say. Most importantly, she didn’t want her online identity to get tangled up with her real life as a Montana mom and a judge. She drove sixty miles into Great Falls to meet with an FBI agent in the regional offices, determined for them to hear her out. She told them everything, admitting to everything she did to get this information, in full detail. For every word she told them, the air got thicker. [MUSIC] The FBI was listening to her. The FBI took her evidence and sprang into action. They called the army missile base a few miles down the road, and they had an intelligence officer who wanted to hear more from Shannen, so she had to go and brief the intelligence officer on the situation. She was kind of relieved to hand all this over. She knew she was in over her depths. Ryan Anderson needed to be stopped or at least looked into, and these were the people who could do it properly.

She handed it all over and drove back home to let them deal with it. But a few days later, the FBI calls her back and they had a plan. The FBI wanted to pose as an Al-Qaeda member and meet with Ryan Anderson to see if they could get him to admit his plan to them firsthand, but they weren’t quite ready. The FBI needed to prep more to make this sting happen, so they told Shannen to keep chatting with him and keep him close and keep an eye on him, see what he’s up to, and they also wanted her to set up the meeting with him and the FBI. After all, she was posing as the Al-Qaeda recruiter, and she would be in a great position to tell Ryan about this meeting with another Al-Qaeda member. The FBI in Montana contacted the FBI in Seattle, and they got in touch with the Army Intelligence Agency in Fort Hood, Texas, to discuss the plan. Ryan was over in Seattle, totally oblivious to all this FBI stuff that was going on about him. He was starting to get jumpy, though. When Shannen told him about the meeting, he was excited. As the meeting drew closer, his excitement got bigger. He was getting antsy. He wanted the meeting to happen sooner than what was planned, and he really wanted to meet with someone from Al-Qaeda in Seattle before he got deployed to Iraq. So, he starts putting pressure on Shannen to make it happen quicker, and she has to stall so that the FBI and the army intelligence can get ready for the sting. Ryan’s paranoia started to creep up on him.

An upcoming meeting with Al-Qaeda can do that to you. He starts getting worried that someone is gonna find out about all this, so he tells Shannen, listen, we need to be safe with this. I don’t want to get caught. So, what we should do is create fake names and use that from now on. She’s like, oh, okay, that’s a good idea. He’s like, yeah, but let’s not just use fake names. Let’s create this whole backstory for each other so it seems like it’s perfectly fine that we’d be having these conversations, and we’ll use code words for certain things, too. She’s like, oh, wow, you really want to be safe and really thought this through. Okay, great. Yeah, I’m on board. Now, by this time, Shannen was a master at wearing all these fake personas online, so this was just another page in her notebook. So, they start pretending that they’re old friends from college just chatting over e-mail. Shannen becomes George and Ryan Anderson starts calling himself Andy. He just doesn’t realize that he’s trying to hide in a shrinking fish bowl. Shannen is now leading a crazy double life. She’s a mother and a wife and a court judge, and these are some important duties, but on the other side, she’s trying to thwart terror attacks, conducting counter-terrorism operations that she’s just doing all by herself by infiltrating forums and chatrooms, acting like a jihadist.

What takes priority here? She’s trying to fit her online life in and around her real life, switching back and forth between personas, and during this time, she still wasn’t telling her husband Randy about all her online crusades. She was waking up early before everyone else was getting up, and she’d go downstairs into the computer room and do all this on her own. She had notebooks and notebooks of secrets. Ryan Anderson — well, I guess he was calling himself Andy now; he kept saying he had a big plan, but he wasn’t telling Shannen what it was, which she suspected was going to be a terrorist attack. He said he needed some cash to carry out his plan, but what was he gonna use the cash for? Shannen didn’t know. Maybe to buy explosives or weapons? She said she could send some cash, but he needed to give up more information first. She wanted more details of the plan. He talked a lot about his plan, about how effective it would be and how proud he was of it, but he was getting frustrated about how long it was taking to get going. So, Shannen kept using the cash as a lure to try to get him to admit the details of the plan, and it finally worked.

He eventually gave in and started explaining his plan in detail. [MUSIC] In fact, he was so excited about it, it just all came flooding out. He was talking weapons, tactics, and locations in Iraq, plus plans for the US Army tanks. Adding it all up, the plan was to kill US soldiers. It was elaborate and detailed and devastating. Ryan was planning on giving classified information to enemy forces, information that severely jeopardizes the safety of US soldiers once they’re in Iraq. He was clearly wanting to cause harm and chaos. He even went so far as to express how he’d hurt anyone who would try to stop him or capture him. All his rants and plans were quickly passed over to the FBI, and they knew they had to get this sting underway and arrest Ryan with firsthand evidence. So, the meeting was set up for January 3rd, 2004. Shannen told Ryan the FBI agent — or Al-Qaeda member — was ready to meet with him, and the location of the meeting was a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Seattle. The day of the meeting finally comes around. Ryan and the FBI agent both casually walk into the bookstore and act like shoppers browsing for books. They meet up and they chatted among the books.

Little did Ryan know, hidden in the books were cameras and microphones, and it was recording their conversation. Ryan gave the agents scanned copies of his identification and a lot of classified information about US Army tanks and troop locations in Iraq. He had seriously incriminated himself. This information had the intention of getting US soldiers killed, but the agents didn’t arrest him on the spot. After all, his troop wasn’t deploying to Iraq yet, so there really wasn’t a rush just yet. Instead, they wanted to see if they could get even more information out of him, so they set up a second meeting to see what else he had to say. The next day, Shannen’s focus shifted back to Samir, the suspicious journalist that she had a key-logger installed on, and she saw that he was sending e-mails about some new base, a landing strip for transporting individuals to Pakistan for fighter training camps? Then an e-mail with a four-page Arabic attachment came in. She spent hours translating it, and it gave the details of where Taliban and Al-Qaeda units are stationed along the Afghan border. While Ryan had information about where US troops would be, Shannen now had information about where Al-Qaeda bases are being set up. It’s kind of wild that she gained this intel.

So, she forwarded that to the FBI, confident that it was valuable information that the US military needed to know about, and she turned out to be right. US forces were able to use that intel for their advantage in Afghanistan. The FBI asked her to come to their offices, and she dropped everything and rushed over. The agents were ready to arrest Ryan, and she was excited. On February 12th, 2004, Ryan Anderson was arrested in Seattle. It was a joint operation with the FBI and the US Army intelligence. Ryan denied it all. He still thought his chats with Shannen were real, but as he saw the evidence come forward, he realized she was not who she said she was. He was now facing terrorism charges. Even though the FBI got firsthand evidence on him, Shannen was the star witness of the case. She’s the one who discovered him and collected tons of data on him. The FBI wanted Shannen to testify at his Article 32 hearing, which is kind of the equivalent of a grand jury. It’s there to figure out if there’s enough evidence to warrant a court martial. This is not something she wanted to do at all. She was afraid of doxxing herself, linking her online identity to her real life. The FBI said it would be a closed court. No one outside would know anything. Her identity and involvement would be protected.

This assurance was the only thing that calmed her, but she knew she had to tell her husband what was going on, so she sits him down and tells him she’s been acting like Abu Zeida online. She has access to Kassir’s e-mails and has been impersonating him and has been planting malware on jihadists’ computers, carrying on lengthy conversations with them, learning Arabic, and ultimately stopping an attack on US troops — and got someone arrested and is now a star witness. Randy was pretty stunned. She did all that? He was impressed, but he was concerned. The people she was infiltrating were obviously dangerous people, so he grew concerned for her safety and the family’s safety, and both really didn’t want their personal identities exposed in the case. On May 4th, 2004, Shannen flew from Great Falls, Montana, to Seattle, and then drove south an hour to the Fort Lewis army base, and this is where the court case was being held. She was familiar with courts and she was a municipal judge, but she had never testified in court before. So, she was a little nervous, especially to face Ryan and to admit to him what she had done. Even though she felt good about her actions, it’s still nerve-wracking to have to face the person that you got arrested.

[MUSIC] But while there, she discovered the media was setting up in the public gallery in court. They were gonna be taking notes during the case. Then she met with the prosecution team and she became even more uneasy. Even though she was their star witness, the lead prosecutor didn’t seem to like her. He made it pretty clear that protecting her identity was not something he was interested in. In fact, he felt that because she was a judge, it would add credence to her testimony. So, he wanted her to explain to the jury who she was online and offline. All this triggered her nerves. Like, whoa, hang on a minute; that’s my real name, address, job, everything. More than that, those fake identities that she had been using? Yeah, they were going to be exposed, too. The idea of exposing herself like that terrified her. On the stand, the judge agreed with the prosecutor that her real identity should be explained to the court. She was in a tough spot now. She did all this work and flew all this way to give testimony, and now the only way to testify is to dox herself. But what’s more important to her, bringing this man to justice or protecting herself? It all happened so fast, and she eventually told the court everything.

The stenographer documented every last word, and the news outlets meticulously took notes. Within hours, her real name was on TV as the surprise witness in the case. The media printed her real name, undercover name, and e-mail addresses that she used to communicate with Ryan Anderson, which was actually Kassir’s e-mail address. All her details were exposed. Shannen and Randy’s worst fears were now a reality, with her real name out there as someone who’s been picking fights with jihadists online. What real-life consequences would that have? Well, her online presence was now blown. Kassir’s online name was abu kadaji[], and now his name and his alias were burned. Nobody would trust that name anymore, and they discovered the 1 in the name that she was using on the forum posts, too. It took years for her to build up these personas and to infiltrate these inner circles of Islamic extremism, and it all came crashing down after the testimony. The malware that she planted started to get discovered on target machines. Samir, the journalist who had all this insider information about what Al-Qaeda was doing, became aware of her and her attempts to spy on him. People were mad at her, very mad. Her situation became much more serious.

SHANNEN: After the Article 32 proceeding, the press office at Fort Lewis released the undercover identity I was using at the time, which was also being used in other ongoing cases, and that was published in the newspaper. So, everybody knew that Shannen Rossmiller was Khadija1417, and after that, threats started to come in and changes had to be made of course for my family and my career. [MUSIC] I had been concerned about being a sitting judge at the time. I was very confident that what I was doing wasn’t unethical, but yet there wasn’t anything — there was nothing like this before. Trying to protect and balance those became another issue. But like I said — some people have asked me, why didn’t you just throw in the towel then? Wasn’t it too much? Well, I don’t quit. So, I wasn’t going to be defeated by it. So, I just had to learn to restructure my life and live it and go forward continuing to do what I do, because I’ve seen the importance of it. I know the importance of it, and I just — I can’t — I just can’t step aside just because of threats, so I’ll make the adjustments I need to.

JACK: Holy crap, Al-Qaeda is threatening her life, placing her on their enemy list, and she’s fully doxxed and she’s just like, I don’t quit. I mean, wow, that is some fearless determination. She was quite a woman. Within weeks of her court appearance, a message was left at her courthouse. In a heavy accent in broken English, a male voice told the clerk to tell her we know who she is now. Reverse-dialing the number revealed a location in Toronto. The FBI instructed the local law enforcement to give her protection for a while. Ryan Anderson was found guilty of providing aid to the terrorist group Al-Qaeda. They demoted him from E-4 to E-1 and gave him a dishonorable discharge, which means he lost all his military benefits. The prosecution wanted to give him a death penalty for what he did. He wanted to kill a lot of US troops. But the court dropped the death penalty. So, the prosecution was trying to get Ryan sentenced to life in prison. Shannen was ordered under subpoena to testify again for the sentencing. She didn’t expect it to go well, and it didn’t. On August 30th, Shannen showed up to the courthouse, and she was standing in line for the security checks to get into the building. As she went through the scanner, all these alarms started going off. She was confused but taken to a back room, and she says she was strip-searched. It was humiliating ‘cause she knew she wasn’t carrying anything. When she finally got into the courthouse, her nerves were even more shredded. Her testimony lasted five hours in total.

That’s a long time to be on a witness stand. She detailed everything that she did online and how. Yeah, so, all the communications with Ryan, it was all revealed. She just wanted it to be over, and she was relieved when she finally got to leave the courthouse that day. [MUSIC] But as she walked to her car, it was surrounded by people, people in white HAZMAT suits, like, hoods up, masks on. They were inspecting her car. They told her the bomb squad dogs had detected explosive residue on the door handle and the trunk. She just looked at him like, what? The media filmed it all while she just stood there, not knowing what to do or what to think. The police took her back to her hotel, and the forensics team came to her hotel with her to check it out. They also wanted to search all her belongings and put her in a different hotel room, one that wasn’t in her name. Nobody knew how serious of a threat this was. Was there real intention to kill her or just intimidate her? Whatever it was, all this got under her skin, but she had to see it through. A few days later, on September 3rd, she went back to court to watch closing ceremonies, and just under five hours later, the jury returned verdicts of guilty on all counts and that Ryan Anderson was sentenced to life in prison. Wow. She did it. It was over. She stopped a terrorist attack. She saved lives. She really did.

That guy was dangerous, radicalized, and was bent on causing harm and destruction to US troops in Iraq. If it wasn’t for her, people would have surely died. She felt great. She wanted to do something and did something, but it came at an expense. Now her life was in danger. So, she got back home to Montana, constantly worried if there was an impending attack planned against her. It was harder to sleep at night for a while. The enormity of what she was involved with was starting to sink in. She kept getting threats online, but that’s just words. Day after day went by, and things were fine in person. Life sort of went back to normal for her. September, October, November passes. Life was kind of uneventful. Things were settling down. This is a good spot for us to take an ad break, but stay with us, because you’re not gonna want to miss what happens in December. December comes around and she starts planning for Christmas. Her three kids are excited about it, too. On December 5th, which was a Sunday, Shannen was woken up extra early by some loud banging on the front door. [MUSIC, BANGING] She ran to the door and when she opened it, two police officers were startled that someone answered the door. They seemed surprised to see her. She was certainly surprised to see them. They asked her, are you Shannen Rossmiller? She said, yes. Then they asked, where’s your car? She said, in the garage. Why? They said, can we see it? She comes outside with them and opens the garage door. As the door raises, she notices the car isn’t in the garage.

Now she was the one startled that it was missing. The officers nodded and told her what was going on. Earlier that morning, the police in the next county over discovered a 2001 Pontiac Grand Prix in a ditch. There was no one around, and when they ran the plates on it, the car came back to Shannen Rossmiller. But that wasn’t all; the car had five bullet holes in it. Yeah, bullet holes. They were made by a 38. caliber gun. Together, with the officers in her home, they pieced together what must have happened. While she was sleeping upstairs, along with her husband and three children, someone had broken into the house, and they had stolen the car keys that were inside the house and then silently rolled the Pontiac out of the garage before driving away. This really shook Shannen. She knew the people she interacted with online were very dangerous, capable of conducting the most horrendous terrorist attacks, and they were in her house while she was sleeping last night. Whoa, whoa. Terrified, Shannen had no idea who did it, but she immediately suspected that this was revenge for her getting Ryan arrested and betraying the online terrorist community. She had become a target, and they knew where she lived. Now, if it was me, I’d probably leave town for a while or maybe move permanently, but not Shannen. She hunkered down. She went out and purchased a gun of her own and installed a security system and improved the locks.

This was her domain and she was going to watch over it and protect it. The whole family was worried, though, wondering what was next. Clearly the bullet holes in the car was a threat that she might be next. But you heard Shannen; she doesn’t quit. In fact, this made her think what she was doing was actually working. 2005 rolls in and she’s still going downstairs into the computer room in the morning to stay up to date on what’s happening on these message boards, partly to keep tabs on if anyone is talking about her, too, you know? She’s using all-new personas now since the old ones were burned. It’s now fall of 2005, and while she keeps getting online threats, there weren’t any more scares in person after that. On October 25th, she stumbled across a new post that caught her eye. [MUSIC] She stared at it and wondered deeply about it. In a Yahoo message group called Osama Bin Laden Crew, a new user had appeared. Longtermonly2 was spouting all this Islamic extremist rhetoric, and then announced that he had a big plan that he was working on and needed help to carry it out. Just like Ryan, the message was written in broken English, posted on a mainly Arabic board. She wondered if this could be a terrorist attack plan in the making, and wanted to know more.

Longtermonly2 was American and saying how furious he was that US had troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. He hated the US foreign policy and planned to disrupt it, forcing a mass recall of troops. Shannen read this but did not engage. This message board displayed IP addresses of users, and she saw that his IP traced back to a server at Assumption College in Bangkok, in Thailand. It was all just, well, curious. Shannen read all this like a fox quietly watching its prey. A few weeks later, longtermonly2 was back, and he was desperate for someone to respond to him. For days he had been posting to try to convince anyone reading this that his plan was a great opportunity, but he needed help. She was able to see the message headers of this post, and in there buried in the header was another name; Michael Reynolds. Okay, she felt strongly about this guy and needed to know more. This guy was talking about a big plan. Was the plan to cause harm and death like what Ryan had planned? So, she decided to act on this. This time though, she can’t act as Kassir since his name is burned. So, she starts looking at all her personas. She remembers one of the earlier ones she created, Abu Zeida. This one actually didn’t get named in the court documents. It wasn’t used in the Ryan Anderson case at all, so she never mentioned it to anyone. It’s clean. So, she gets back into that account, and at this point, it’s years old on the forum. Nice; easier to approach someone when your account is established versus having a freshly-made one.

She also remembers this Abu Zeida identity of hers was trying to connect with the Army of Righteous, a jihadist militant organization out of Pakistan. She even claimed at some point her identity was actually involved with some of these hacks that this group conducted. Her Arabic was better than ever now, too; at least to a non-native speaker it was passable. Okay, cool. Yeah, this could work if she messages him from Abu Zeida’s account. Shannen was back to being in her full undercover mode. Shannen didn’t want to directly engage with him, though. She knows the tricks. If you can somehow get him to message you first, it’s much more effective than her messaging him first. So, the next few weeks, she gets active on the forum that Michael Reynolds was posting to. She’s posting as Abu Zeida, saying things trying to get Michael interested in. Michael notices her and starts to pick her out as someone who might be able to help him. He walks straight in her trap. He messaged her directly and told her he needed money to finance his plan. She told him, hey, let’s chat more securely, where we message each other from the drafts folder of an e-mail, just like she set up with Kassir. He agreed to this and they set up a new shared e-mail box to message each other from.

Michael told her how much money he needed to carry out his plan; $80,000. Shannen was like, mm-hm, yeah, go on. But meanwhile, she’s looking at the e-mail account logs to check what IP he’s connecting to it with. Originally he was coming in from Thailand, but now she sees he’s connecting from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. She now had enough information to start building a dossier on him. [MUSIC] Michael Curtis Reynolds, forty-seven years old, American, discharged from the US Army. He had several financial problems and a criminal record. Two years after graduating from high school in New York, he tried to blow up his parents’ house. Whoa, that’s pretty extreme. He had an ex-wife, three kids, martial arts, weapons, and explosive training. This guy is kind of a loose wire and he could be a serious threat. So, Shannen wants to keep him on the hook to try to hear more about his plan, but he’s reluctant to tell her the whole plan or any more details. So, she kicks it up a notch. She tells him that she has contacts ready to mobilize across the US, in Pennsylvania and Georgia, and they have a lot of cash available. He’s like, yeah, okay, good to know. But she checks his IP again, and now he’s connecting from Pocatello, Idaho. He was on the move. She starts connecting the dots. Wait, he was in Thailand, and then Pennsylvania, now Idaho? Idaho is one state over from Montana, where she was.

She starts to get paranoid. Is he coming for her? He had access to this e-mail account, too, and could check the IP of where she was connecting from. Did he see any connections from Conrad, Montana? That might immediately tip off that he’s talking with Shannen Rossmiller, not Abu Zeida. She triple-checks everything, her proxy servers, the e-mail logs, all her opsec. It all seemed okay. At least, she thinks so. She can’t find any mistakes that would have given her identity away. She feels somewhat relieved, but why is he in Idaho? She doubled down on him, told him again, look, there are some people on the move. They’ve got cash, but they’re uninterested in giving you in any money unless they know your plan first. So, he opens up. He tells her his grand plan is to attack fuel production in the US. [MUSIC] See, earlier that year in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit land, and it was a massive storm. Part of the destruction was that fuel production was knocked out for two days. We’re talking 90% of oil production along the Gulf Coast was wiped out, resulting in gas prices hitting crazy levels. Michael Reynolds had watched over all this, and for him, he saw how vulnerable fuel production is in the US. That’s where he got his plan, to recreate what Katrina did to the fuel supply, but way bigger. He laid out the plan for her; he was going to blow up multiple production sites and the Alaskan Pipeline, one of the world’s largest oil pipelines.

He explained that if he could do all this, there would be no way to switch to any backup, not easily, and the US would come to a halt. Now, this Alaskan Pipeline is massive, like, really big. It runs through Alaska for 800 miles. Michael’s plan was to disrupt the nation’s fuel for weeks. He wanted to cause riots to a scale high enough that the National Guard would be deployed to calm the civil unrest. Shannen was very concerned but kept him talking, and he kept going. His plan got even more crazy. At the peak of this civil unrest, he was going to make a statement that all this happened because the US has troops in Iraq, and he thought the people would all collectively demand that the US removes military from Iraq. He had a whole communication plan that he was going to give to the press about it all, too, exposing the government and stuff. Shannen realized he was crazy, but also potentially very dangerous. His idea involved blowing up busses and trucks alongside the pipeline to cause as much havoc as possible. Now he’s hitting up Shannen, who he thinks is part of Al-Qaeda for cash to pull it off. He was so proud of his big plan and just thought it was awesome and well-crafted. Shannen doesn’t hesitate. Soon as he admits all this, she rushes it all over to the FBI. He immediately became a person of interest to them. He was posing a big threat to the US. Her FBI liaison, Mark, suggested she drafted a final message for Michael Reynolds before they swooped in. So, Shannen does what the FBI says and tells Michael they’d give him half the money now and half later, but he had to tell her everything. So, Michael Reynolds agrees and tells her even more of the plan.

To begin with, he said he was in Idaho because he was checking out the Williams natural gas refinery in Opal, Wyoming, which is a huge fuel production plant, and he had this place in mind to be his first target. He said it was much easier to hit than the Alaskan Pipeline, which was his initial plan. He said once he gets half the money, he’ll reveal the rest of the plan. She realized if this guy is traveling around the country checking out oil facilities, then his plans are much more serious than she originally thought. The FBI told Shannen they were ready for the sting. They told her to tell him when to pick up the $40,000. She gives the details to Michael. The trap was set. [MUSIC] The date was December 5th, 2005. Michael Reynolds was still in Idaho and woke up in the Thunderbird Hotel in Pocatello, which is a two-star hotel. It was freezing out. Snow was on the ground. He was instructed to go down I-15, and just after mile marker 100 is a rest area, and there will be a red bag waiting for him there. He gets in the car and drives. He’s anxious, excited, and nervous all at the same time, thinking about his plan and the money, $40,000. He gets through town and out onto I-5, and the first mile marker he sees is 72. Twenty-eight more miles until he has his hands on the money.

How exciting. He keeps driving. There’s nothing in this area of Idaho, no forests or mountains in this area. It’s pretty flat, and the landscape just beckons you to gaze off far into the distance and think big. It’s a four-lane highway, a nice, easy drive. The road was clear but everywhere else was white with snow still. He drives past Snake River, past some small towns, past some farmland. He arrives at mile marker 100, and he sees the rest area and pulls over. He was told to look for a red bag. He gets out of his car and looks around. A few other semi-trucks around and cars are stopped there. He sees a picnic table and something red underneath it. He walks over. It’s a red bag. This must be the bag with the cash. He goes to pick it up, but while he’s focused on the bag, he didn’t notice the FBI coming up behind him. They surrounded him, threw him on the cold, snowy ground before he could realize what was happening. On his way to be questioned, he started talking. He insisted that he was only acting and that he wasn’t actually going to blow up anything, but he was trying to get information on this Abu Zeida guy to report him to the FBI. Michael was insisting that he was the one working undercover and he was innocent, and says, hey, go arrest Abu Zeida; he’s the real terrorist here. Michael said he can prove it. Michael was held in jail until his trial date and was angry about everything. He actually wrote a letter to the judge. This guy was adamant about going home. He told the judge, just acquit him and call it a day, but the judge didn’t listen and set a trial date for July 2007, which is almost two years after his arrest. Shannen was called to testify at Michael’s trial.

She was expecting it and was more prepared this time around than during Ryan’s trial. What she wasn’t prepared for was how her body was going to test her during those days on the stand. The night before, she flew to Scranton, Pennsylvania where the case was being held. The night before, she felt pretty unwell. On the first day of testimony, she did well on the stand, but by day two, she could hardly walk. [MUSIC] She was fatigued and vomiting, and she could see blood. Now she was getting scared. But she was determined to see through what she had gone there to do. Mark, the FBI agent, was there to support her. She somehow managed another full day of testimony, including cross-examination by Michael’s attorney, and when she was done, she immediately flew home and got outta there. But it just got worse from there. After arriving home, she just couldn’t take this sickness anymore and went to the emergency room. The doctors found a bleeding ulcer and two kidney stones. Whoa. This was a lot to handle for her, but she was treated and went home to recover. As she recovered, she knew she had to change how she worked. The thought of the trial must have caused so much stress and anxiety that it triggered all these health issues. It was too much. During his trial, Michael took the stand in his own defense.

He maintained his story that he was the one working undercover, but it didn’t work. The jury just took forty-five minutes to come back with guilty verdicts for five of the six counts against him. He was convicted of attempting to provide material support and resources to a foreign terrorist organization and possession of an explosive device. Michael Reynolds was sentenced to thirty-five years in federal prison. That drive through Idaho was the last time he had a taste of freedom, and I wonder if he’s replayed that drive a thousand times in his head since then. [MUSIC] Well, Shannen Rossmiller had two high-profile cases taken to court and both found guilty. The events of 9/11 somehow turned her into a citizen counter-terrorist, a cyber spy. She was doing her part to try to thwart another 9/11, and she did. Imagine if that guy blew up all those oil facilities and caused a national emergency. It was rewarding for sure, but dang, the stress of it was really affecting her. July 2006 comes along. Shannen gets a job at the state attorney’s office in Helena, about two hours away from her home in Conrad. She was going back and forth between Helena and Conrad a lot. Randy and the kids were home in Conrad, and it was a Friday and she was looking to go home to see them for the weekend. But the Conrad Police Department call her on the phone, and the officer tells her a crazy story.

[MUSIC] The kids are fine, Randy’s fine, but something strange happened. Last night at 10:00 p.m., someone called 911 and said there was an accident. Highway patrol went to check it out. It was twenty-five miles north of Conrad out on a remote gravel road up towards Canada, and there was a Ryder rental truck that was nose-down in a ravine. The truck was mangled pretty badly, and it was all banged up and had been in a serious wreck. There were four men in the truck. All four had injuries and had to go to the hospital, but two were hurt pretty seriously. But at the hospital they were refusing treatment, saying something about unclean hands. The cops question them. They say they’re coming down from Canada. The cops ask where they came in from Canada, and they said some back gravel road. It sounded like they didn’t go through an official checkpoint. Each of them had US visas, but each of them were from different countries, and they were all wearing male chastity belts. It was all very weird. The cops look through the truck and found GPS, gadgets, laptops, phones, tracking devices, extra batteries, tons of cables, keyboards, monitors, mice, lots of high-tech gear. I think some antennas were in there, and there were also a few dissassembled weapons in the truck. Yeah, all neatly packed in boxes. Shannen’s like, okay, but what’s any of this have to do with me, though?

The cop says the GPS in the truck was set to her home address, meaning they were likely on their way to her residence in Conrad when they crashed off the side of the road. They found her address and the courthouse address in one of their laptops. Of course, news like this is enough to make anyone’s blood run cold. So, instead of her heading home for the weekend as usual, Shannen’s told to stay in Helena. The police offered to give her extra protection for a while. They offered to park a squad car outside her house for as long as she wants. They didn’t want to take any chances. Randy and the kids packed up and got outta town over to a family member’s house so they could be safe. The cops questioned the men again. Now they were saying they were part of some traveling music show touring through Montana. The men were somehow let go or slipped away or something. It’s not clear, but they vanished and were never seen from again. After the Reynolds case, Shannen kept doing her undercover work online. But at this point, it was much less intense. For one, she simply sent the FBI information much sooner and then trained them on how to take over the conversations and find these terrorists online just like she was. She wanted to remove herself from the evidence chain so she would no longer have to testify in court proceedings, and it worked. She didn’t have any more cases that she needed to appear in, and the FBI was able to thwart more terrorist plots.

SHANNEN: I’ve created thirty-two actual — over the years — primary characters, identities online that at different times I’ll spawn off other sub-identities in order to continue with making the whole appearance of who I am, what I say I’m doing, a little more real as it is in the whole virtual context that the internet provides. Those identities have led to different prosecutions, but the interesting thing was the two individuals that were prosecuted here in the United States, the two high-profile cases, they were the result of those individuals stumbling into the Arabic forums looking to make contact with Al-Qaeda. Thankfully, I guess, it was me that they were — that they grabbed onto, and I was able to rein them in and keep control of them up until the cases were turned over to the FBI.

JACK: In 2006, Shannen received a Middle East Forum American Hero Award. In March 2009, she was honored with the Congressional Medal of Honor Societies Above and Beyond Citizen Award from Montana. Sadly, Shannen died in November 2020. She had Graves disease, which meant she had an overproduction of the thyroid hormone, and it caused all kinds of health problems. She was fifty years old. Shannen Rossmiller was fearless about stepping into the shadows of the unknown. She was fueled by an unwavering resolve to make a difference in the world, a lone wolf, yet a guardian angel. She had an impressive personal life, but an extraordinary spirit that guided her through some wild online adventures. Her story is more than the sum of her deeds. Who knows what lives she saved and what those people went on to accomplish. A rural mom and municipal judge by day, but a brutal cyber counter-terrorism spy by night, feeling just as comfortable wearing fake personas as she does with her real life. I think the world is still catching up to the significance of who Shannen was and what she accomplished. I hope she’ll be an inspiration for how to blend bravery and love and justice and technology. Her story stretches beyond the horizon and outlives the setting sun.

(OUTRO): [OUTRO MUSIC] Shannen Rossmiller published a book about her journey called The Unexpected Patriot: How an Ordinary American Mother is Bringing Terrorists to Justice. I’ll have a link to it and all my sources in the show notes. A big thank-you to SpyCast for giving us permission to use the interview they conducted with Shannen back in 2011. SpyCast is a podcast that interviews spies. You gotta go check it out. You’ll love it. This episode was created by me, the packet snacker, Jack Rhysider. This episode was researched and written by the anxious algorithm, Fiona Guy. Our editor is the lucky logic bomb, Tristan Ledger, mixing done by Proximity Sound, and our interim music is done by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Why did the online spy go to art school? To learn how to draw conclusions from incomplete information. This is Darknet Diaries.


Transcription performed by LeahTranscribes