Suburban Housewife Counterterrorist Does What The FBI Can’t

Ken AshfordWar on Terrorism/TortureLeave a Comment

Interesting story in Wired about a woman in Montana who spends her free time infiltrating Jihadist online chats:

Ff_rossmiller_fRossmiller developed her remarkable talent for chatting up terrorists after September 11, when she started going into online forums and cajoling valuable information from other visitors. She has passed along numerous case files to federal authorities. Her information has led US forces abroad to locate Taliban cells in Afghanistan, discover a renegade stinger-missile merchant in Pakistan, and help another foreign government identify a ring of potential suicide bombers. She has also assisted in nabbing two domestic would-be terrorists and seen them both convicted of felonies: National guardsman Ryan Anderson received five concurrent life sentences, and Michael Reynolds, convicted in July and awaiting sentencing, faces a similar fate. Timothy Fuhrman, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Salt Lake City office, says Rossmiller was "instrumental in the successful outcome of those cases."

Rossmiller succeeds by exploiting a fundamental flaw in al Qaeda’s famously decentralized organization. The absence of a strict hierarchy makes it pretty easy for a cunning person to mix among the terrorists. So she poses as a potential al Qaeda soldier looking for like-minded comers. She creates multiple characters and uses her older and more respected personae to invite the new ones into private forums. There are other self-taught counterterrorists like her, but they tend to translate and discuss, lurk and report. Rossmiller works the terrorism boards as if she were playing a complex videogame. Her characters come complete with distinct personalities and detailed biographies that are as richly conceived as any protagonist on an HBO series. She keeps copies of everything, time-stamps files, and takes screenshots. She has an Excel spreadsheet that details the 640 people with whom she has had contact on these boards since 2002.

She taught herself Arabic, and now chats using flowery language from Muhammad Atta and other terrorists.  And…

she invested in a proxy server application, which creates a fake IP address off a known IP server someplace real. That way, Rossmiller could send her email as someone living, say, in Yemen, and anyone closely examining the email header would see that the message did appear to come from Yemen. Rossmiller researched the area she was purporting to be emailing from and learned the neighborhood so she could casually mention a nearby restaurant or mosque, sometimes even the name of a local imam.

It’s all very interesting stuff, but it does raise some questions — namely, why isn’t our government doing this?  As the article suggests, the FBI is getting tips from her.

The reason is quite simple — the FBI is bumfuzzled.  In fact, the FBI…

has failed in every attempt to modernize its technology since 2001, and it so restricts the software available to agents that they can’t even begin to match what Rossmiller does. "The FBI is a dinosaur in many respects," says [White House conterterrorism official Roger] Cressey.

Rossmiller agrees. "I went to a meeting in Great Falls, and we got to talking, and someone had to look something up online," she says. "I asked, ‘What do you use for Internet access?’ and one agent said, ‘We have to go to the public library down the street.’"

She also tells a story about another agent who had to get permission to open a Yahoo account because it violated office regs. "They weren’t allowed," she says.

WTF?  If the FBI wants to have internet access to monitor internet chat by terrorists, they have to go to the public library?

So, we’re spending billions of dollars to fight a war in Iraq, and leaving the actual cybertracking of terrorists . . . to Montana amature hobbyists?

Bizarre.  The incompetence with which this so-called "War on Terror" is being fought is astounding.