WASHINGTON — Once her three kids are off to school, Laura Mansfield settles in at her dining room table with her laptop and begins trolling Arabic-language message boards and chat rooms popular with jihadists.
Fluent in Arabic, the self-employed terror analyst often hacks into the sites, translates the material, puts it together and sends her analysis via a subscription service to intelligence agencies, law enforcement and academics.
Occasionally she comes across a gem, such as when she found a recent Osama bin Laden video — before al-Qaida had announced it.
"I realized, oh my gosh, I'm sitting here, I'm a fat 50-year-old mom and I've managed to scoop al-Qaida," said Mansfield, who uses that name as a pseudonym because she receives death threats.
She sometimes spends 100 hours a week online, and she often finds items after word has begun spreading on the Arabic forums of an imminent release.
"It's really important to understand what the jihadists think and how they're planning on doing things," she said. "They're very vocal. They tell us what they're going to do and then they go out and do it."
Mansfield tips off her intelligence sources when she does find something new, part of an informal working relationship with the government.
"When I send them something, it's welcome," she said. "They thank me."
There have been times when an impending video release has kept her from a planned shopping trip with her daughter.
"It gets really challenging when you're trying to do that and cook spaghetti at the same time," she said.
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