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The Unexpected Patriot: How 9/11 Transformed Shannen Rossmiller into a Counter-Terrorism Expert

by Jessica Mosby

Before 9/11 Shannen Rossmiller was a judge, wife, and mother of three living in Montana. That fateful September day became the impetus for her to become a counter-intelligence expert focused on infiltrating jihadists’ networks. Rossmiller’s memoir The Unexpected Patriot, written with Sue Carswell and published by Palgrave Macmillan, details this journey.

In the days immediately following 9/11, Rossmiller was consumed by the news coverage. She went online to find out more and became captivated by Middle Eastern culture. She was soon teaching herself Arabic. Unlike many Americans not directly affected by 9/11, Rossmiller took the terrorist attacks on the United States as a call to action. This commitment created disharmony in her personal life and took a toll on her health as she was thrust into the public eye due to her participation in high-profile terrorism cases.

The Unexpected Patriot is an honest account of how the terrorist attacks changed something deep within Rossmiller and how that change altered the course of her life. The memoir is personal and accessible, even to those readers without much interest in the intricacies of counter-terrorism or international politics.

What is most awe-inspiring is that Rossmiller became a counter-terrorism expert while still working a day job. Hiding her double life from her family and friends, she learned Arabic, studied the Koran, and went online under aliases of her own creation to communicate directly with aspiring terrorists. She then contacted the FBI with the information she had gathered.

Readers of The Unexpected Patriot will be shocked by how technology has made it easy for would-be terrorists to find like-minded individuals and plan attacks. While these communications often take place where any Internet user can find them – as Rossmiller did – the Internet is so vast that it seems close to impossible to track every such exchange. In this technologically-driven new world, Rossmiller has emerged as a valuable resource in creating new and nimble counter-terrorism policies.

After I finished The Unexpected Patriot, I was captivated by the woman behind the writing. Via email, which seemed fitting, Rossmiller answered my questions with the frankness and honesty that I had come to expect from this inspirational person.

After 9/11 what changed for you?

What changed me was 9/11 itself. But, it also summoned up a rediscovered sense of patriotism and realization that the world I knew would never be the same and that my kids would now be part of a new 9/11 generation growing up with the threat of terrorism being a part of their daily lives. The ideal I had up until that day, as an American, was one of privilege and invincibility. 9/11 shattered all of that and as the days moved on and we went to war, the pain and outrage that was building inside me motivated me to try and do something. I eventually found my way to the Internet with a resolve to try and fight our terrorist enemy.

What are your feelings about 9/11 ten years later?

Ten years later, it is still very painful. In ten years our world has so drastically changed and in some ways I feel like we have made gains against the threat of terrorism but realize there is still a lot to be done in our fight against radical Islam. Watching coverage of the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks brought up those raw painful feelings about the loss of all those who died and those who have died fighting against terrorism and grief for what was before 9/11. But, in the last ten years, I have not lost my resolve and determination to continue to fight.

Post-9/11, what fascinated you about Middle Eastern Culture?

What captured me was how different our worlds and cultures are. I knew about the Middle East but the depth of what I knew back then was limited to what little was reported in the news. After 9/11 I really wanted to understand their culture and how we differed but I was also searching to understand how people could be caught up in the ideologies that make up terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and motivate them to want to kill us. I was fascinated with how people in that part of the world saw and perceived us here in the US and in the West generally. How they saw and perceived us was nothing like how we see and perceive our culture, ideals, and beliefs.

What drove you to learn Arabic and completely immerse yourself – via the Internet – in another culture? This is especially noteworthy as you were working alone in secret.

When I first found my way to the jihadi Internet sites, they were mostly all in Arabic and I managed to stumble along on translation software – but it doesn’t give you a good idea of the context of what is really being discussed. So in January 2002 I decided to try and learn Arabic. I started taking online classes and eventually went out to New York to take some language intense courses. What really helped in trying to learn the language was just practical application of using what I was learning of the language as I started communicating with individuals within the jihadi sites. I have always been a good self-learner so that was just the way I started learning the language. One aspect of my personality is that I have always compartmentalized things in my life from other areas of my life so as I began my journey into the jihadi sites it was actually kind of a natural way for me to keep my online life separate from my real world life.

In the beginning, was it difficult to be taken seriously in the generally male-dominated world of counter-intelligence? If so, how did you overcome this perceived gender discrimination?

Yes. Initially the contact I had with the FBI was by phone, but being a judge and knowledgeable in the law helped me to establish a position of credibility with respect to the work I was doing and making them see the importance of what was going in the jihadi sites. I don’t know that what I encountered was necessarily gender related. I honestly think that it was a kind of unwillingness to see that a private citizen had discovered the importance of the open source intelligence that is found on the Internet. Maybe a bit of breaking the culture that existed between how intelligence work was done traditionally before 9/11 and the realization that the intelligence landscape had changed and evolved to the cyber landscape.

How has your work in counter-terrorism changed you?

It is hard to explain this aspect because I realize in hindsight that I always had the abilities within me to do the counter-intelligence work. They all just kind of came together after 9/11 to help me start doing the work and learn the things that I have over the years. I guess if anything changed me as a result of the work, it made me become a more public person than I was before or ever wanted to be. That aspect has been difficult as by nature I am a very private person and I have had to learn to deal with all the attention and awareness of the work I was doing because others convinced me that what I was doing was important and needed to be done by others, so I have had to share my skills and abilities with others to kind of train others to do what I have done and do in the counter-intelligence work.

After being active in counter-intelligence for ten years, does anything about jihadists still surprise you?

No, and this hard to explain. They are creative and progressive in how they have used the Internet to advance each and every aspect and objective of their cause and ideologies. I think because I entered this world as an uninformed outsider and have had to learn all about them from them, that really nothing surprises me or has over the years.

You write a lot about your family, how did this double life affect your family?

I tried for almost two years to keep what I was doing in the jihadi sites apart from my family. They were aware that I was interested in the terrorist threat but they weren’t aware that I had taken what had started as a passive interest to an active role online. My kids were still quite young when I started this journey and really had no interest in what I was doing but my husband at the time was quite shocked when I had to tell him that what I was doing online wasn’t just reading and following the terrorist threat with interest but had actually become involved in a high profile case that was going to become public and lead to a prosecution. He wasn’t happy at first mostly because he didn’t understand the extent of what all was involved. Once I had to become public with my work he gradually came to a position of support. After that time, he – and the kids to a lesser extent – had to learn to live a different life with newfound media and public interest in the work I was doing. However, after the second high profile case in 2007, and the threats that followed, it eventually led to the downfall of our marriage. This is a painful sacrifice that I had to realize and deal with as a result.

Why did you decide to write the book The Unexpected Patriot with Sue Carswell?

I had been approached, going back to 2005, about writing a book and never really was interested in going through that process. But I was eventually convinced that it would be a positive thing to do. I came to see writing this book…would allow me to tell the whole story regarding why I did what I did, how it affected me, and hopefully to give an example of how other individuals can and should look within themselves to see what they have to offer up to make our communities, nation, and this world a better place for all.

What is next for you?

In 2009 I left my career in the law to do national security work full time. Though I no longer will allow myself to be in another situation that would subject me to another high profile court case, I continue to do all that I did before but have stepped into a consulting role where I have been working with defense contractors and non-profit organizations focused in the national security and intelligence fields. The role I have now is much easier for me to handle and manage my life at the same time. The stress of all I was doing and the intense pressure of the high profile cases eventually took its toll on my health and both my personal and professional life. I had to decide how I could continue to fight the threat of terrorism and have a less stressful life. I have no plans to quit this work because it is important and I know now that the work I have done has contributed to something much more important than myself. My plans are to continue to fight terrorism in whatever manner I can until it is ultimately defeated and no longer presents a threat to our everyday lives.

About the Author:
Jessica Mosby
is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she’s not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.

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