01/16/2015 11:33 am ET Updated Mar 18, 2015

France's Terrible Swift Sword

The stirring martial line from the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" comes to mind in contemplating the amazing feat of the French security services: In a country of 66 million people and in a matter of two days, localizing and liquidating the two terrorist brothers of Algerian descent who had rampaged through the offices of the iconoclastic weekly Charlie Hebdo on January 7, killing 12 people.

France is one of the most heavily policed countries in the world, for keeping order in a disorderly nation, apt, with its revolutionary tradition, to take to the streets at the drop of a hat, to accomplish political ends.

France has multiple police and paramilitary organizations, including two anti-terrorist intervention forces, à la Seal Team Six. One, under the police, is known under the acronym RAID; and the other, known as the GIGN, is part of the gendarmerie, a quasi-military force that patrols the French countryside. Both came into action in the double takedowns on January 9: in the north near Charles de Gaulle airport, and in the east of Paris. In the latter scene, a terrorist of Black African descent, having seized a kosher supermarket, threatened to kill his hostages if the two terrorist brothers, holed up in a printing factory near the airport, were not released -- a clear impossibility.

The attack on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo followed a series of smaller attacks in France in recent days, raising the question of why France appears to be a major target of Muslim extremism. There are a number of reasons for this. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe -- an estimated 4.7 million persons. (It also has the largest Jewish population). Many of the Muslims are Arabs, and many of these Arabs are North Africans, mostly of Algerian background. From the historical memory of the Algerian war of independence from the French (1954-62), there is a legacy of the horrible things that each side did to the other. Some of these Algerian-origin people are well integrated into French society, but others are not -- living in decrepit high-rises in the suburbs (banlieues) of Paris and other cities: a breeding ground of discontentment.

Additionally, France is an aggressively secular country, forcing religion into the background, even to the extent of banning the wearing of the Muslim head scarf in public places.

And last but not least, France has been in the lead in combating Islamist forces in the Near East and Africa, particularly in Mali and also elsewhere.

In short, a cocktail for the focus of extremist Muslim ire.