Over the last decade, America and her allies have done a solid job of beating al Qaeda to a bloody pulp. We’ve hit them with everything we’ve got: troops on the ground; Predator drones in the sky; missiles from the sea; and we’re taking them apart piece by piece on the Web.
But it’s not just the government that’s running down al Qaeda. Even U.S. citizens are using some good-ol’-fashioned American initiative; citizens like Shannen Rossmiller, a citizen cyber spy.
Rossmiller’s no government agent. She’s just your average citizen with an extraordinary conviction to bring al Qaeda to its knees. Online she sounds like a terrorist, looks like a terrorist and walks like a terrorist, but in reality, she is anything but. Since 9/11, Rossmiller has been on the cutting edge of cyber counterterrorism, hunting and tracking terrorists online and sharing her findings with federal authorities.
Given that we are hunting al Qaeda relentlessly, one might think terrorists would take extra steps to hide their identity on the Internet. Rossmiller said no.
“People still believe they have anonymity online,” she said. “They don’t realize you can trace them and figure out who they are, using IP addresses and other means.”
And because of that belief, they’re willing to talk openly, she said. That’s how she gets them.
So what is cyber counterterrorism? It isn’t yet a defined practice area, though Rossmiller is making strides in that direction. She told us all about it when she spoke to a small gathering of industry specialists, a discussion hosted by Security Debrief and homeland security consulting firm Catalyst Partners.
Take the case of Ryan Anderson, an American National Guardsman who on the verge of deployment to Iraq was also online, using a different name and talking about jihad. Rossmiller identified him as a threat, and posing as an Algerian sympathizer, lured Anderson, over the course of numerous e-mails, into revealing details of his plans.
Rossmiller provided this evidence to the FBI, and with Rossmiller serving as a key witness for the prosecution, Anderson was convicted of attempting to aid and provide information to al Qaeda. He is spending the rest of his life in prison.
Rossmiller is many people in cyberspace, all of them supposedly eager to wage violent jihad. But they’re constructs, built through research and trial and error. She engages radicalized and potentially violent individuals in online forums and websites, slowly but surely writing in Arabic (not her native tongue). The lingo she uses smacks of al Qaeda-speak (whatever that sounds like), and clearly her efforts are effective as she’s pulling would-be terrorists into the open, teeing them up for our federal forces to finish the job.
Ready to sign up? Vigilantes beware. Rossmiller is particularly effective because she understands the law. As the youngest female judge in U.S. history, she has a keen awareness of what constitutes entrapment and what is needed for a conviction. Other well-intentioned but less legal-minded individuals may not be as effective in finding evidence that leads to convictions.
The discussion was moderated by Dr. David McWhorter, principal at Catalyst Partners and a former analyst with the Institute for Defense Analyses. Also helping lead the discussion was Security Debrief’s Steve Bucci, Cyber Security Lead, Global Leadership Initiative at IBM Global Services.