Simon Cottee

What’s keeping terrorism experts awake at night?

Neil Basu (Getty images)

This keeps me up at night. Have you come across this expression of pained anguish lately? This isn’t about conversations with friends or loved one’s on Covid, returning to work or never working again. I’m talking about news stories on national security and terrorism, where experts and counter-terrorism officials are interviewed and feel duty-bound to disclose that they can’t sleep at night.

The number of these individuals who haven’t had a decent night’s sleep of late is frankly quite alarming. ‘This keeps me up at night,’ terrorism scholar John Horgan told Slate’s Aymann Ismail last November. He was referring to the gathering storm of far-right extremism in America. ‘I think we’re truly in free fall, and don’t have any sense of how to grasp this,’ he said.

Three weeks later, it transpired that Elizabeth Neumann, the former lead at the Department of Homeland Security in the US, was also sleep deprived. She reportedly said that the mass radicalisation of Trump supporters ‘keeps her up at night worrying about where the country is heading.’

So what else is going on when counter-terrorism experts tell us about their sleepless nights?

A year earlier, counter-terrorism expert Courtney La Bau wrote a piece for CNN entitled: ‘I work to fight terrorism. This is the threat that keeps me up at night.’ After establishing that she had ‘seen the best and the worst of humanity’, and that ‘the range of threats that our nation faces is very real — from the rise in lone wolf and homegrown attacks to the persistent existence of the ideology behind Isis,’ La Bau wrote that:

‘Those aren’t the only security risks that are keeping me up at night. Right now, what concerns me most is the widening polarisation in our country, because this is the kind of division that feeds the seeds of hate at the root of every kind of terror attack.’

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