The scale of Friday’s killing spree in Paris may be unprecedented, but given recent history, French authorities knew they were vulnerable to just such an attack.
Following the January attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the killing of hostages at a kosher grocery store several days later, France deployed 10,000 troops and 1,000 police to guard potential targets throughout the country, most notably synagogues and Jewish cultural centers. Months later, most were still in place.
In addition, France passed a controversial and sweeping new surveillance law in May allowing intelligence agencies to tap phone calls and emails without permission from a judge and analyze vast swaths of digital data on French citizens that was previously off-limits. Even before Charlie Hebdo, French counterterrorism authorities had unusually broad powers, including the ability to hold terrorism suspects for long periods without charges, quickly order wiretaps, and slap six-month travel bans on those suspected of trying to go to countries where terrorist groups operate.
One reason why experts believe that large, coordinated commando style raids like this are relatively rare is that they involve many people and a lot of logistical planning, making them easier to disrupt than “lone wolf” attacks or individual suicide bombings. Given the extensive and intrusive powers they’ve been granted, French counterterrorism authorities are likely to face some tough questions in the light of day about how a plot this big and well-organized went undetected.