Now that Qaddafi is gone, who is really taking charge of the cutthroats who roam the vast ungoverned spaces of the Sahara?
Algeria's secrets obscure the 'war on terror' in the Sahara
Which is the biggest country in Africa? And which is Europe's third largest gas supplier, after Russia and Norway? The answer to both is Algeria, although not many people in the English-speaking world - the French are better informed about their former colony - would know.
The anglosphere discovered its ignorance about Algeria, and the wider Saharan region, when militants attacked a gas plant in southern Algeria close to the border with Libya. In defiance of the fashionable talk of the connected world, it turned out that the Ain Amenas plant was genuinely off the grid. No reporters got close. Western media organisations knew no one in Algeria, and had no chance of getting a reporter in. Only a news agency in Mauritania had, it seems, a link with the hostage-takers.
For much of the outside world, Algeria has become a blank space on the map. This is exactly how Algiers wants it to be. The military-led government has defied the wave of Arab revolutions and might claim to be the last of the old Arab security states. At the time of greatest world interest in his country, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika remained out of sight and unwilling to talk to foreign leaders.
The role of spokesman for the regime was left to the prime minister, Abdel Malek Sellal, but it was assumed that resolving the crisis was in the hands of General Mohamed Mediene, the magnificently invisible director of the DRS, the state intelligence service, who has held the post since 1990. His record of longevity is greater than that of Omar Suleiman, who died last year after 19 years at the head of Egyptian General Intelligence, and the late Moroccan interior minister, Driss Basri, who held the kingdom in an iron grip for 20 years.
The closed nature of Algerian power has made it harder for outsiders to understand the bigger picture of the crisis in Mali, the neighbouring state to the south. French troops have rushed in to stop rebels, armed with weapons looted from Libya, who were advancing on Mali's capital, Bamako.
There is a simple - but incomplete - explanation for the outside world's failure to see Libya, Algeria and Mali as part of the same jigsaw. All over the world, governments tend to deal with Algeria as part of the Middle East and North Africa, while Mali is considered part of a separate region, sub-Saharan Africa. The real world is not so neatly divided, particularly as the inhabitants of northern Mali and southern Algeria, mainly Tuaregs, a Berber people, have always lived off the trans-Saharan trade.
Now western politicians are standing up to proclaim that they will join the dots across the Sahara. David Cameron, the British prime minister, has proclaimed a decades-long fight against Al Qaeda in the region. Hillary Clinton, the outgoing US secretary of state, called for a "better strategy" and said the US should be prepared for a "necessary struggle" to stop northern Mali from becoming a haven for terrorists.
A sceptical note needs to be struck here. Since 2001, the US has been actively involved, first with the Pan-Sahel Initiative and, since 2007, with the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative that covers Algeria, Mali and neighbouring states. The US also trained units of the Malian army, some of which instantly defected when faced with the combined forces of the Tuareg nationalists and Al Qaeda-linked jihadists last year. So there has been no lack of US activity on the counterterrorism front, althought there seems to have been a serious lack of understanding.
Several points need to be clarified before getting to grips with this "necessary struggle".
The first is the role of Tuareg nationalism. The Tuaregs are the Kurds of the Sahara/Sahel region, spread over several countries - especially northern Mali and Niger, but also southern Algeria - but without a state of their own. When in power, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi kept a kind of order among the Tuareg. In the current vacuum, there are suspicions that Algeria is trying to focus Tuareg nationalism away from its own borders and into the weaker state of Mali.
The second issue is criminality. The leader of the gang that attacked the gas plant, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is known as "Marlboro man" for his smuggling activities. Was the attack a daring September 11-style assault on the Algerian state, or a botched attempt to kidnap western oil workers who could be ransomed for a fortune and ensure Belmokhtar's status as the godfather of the Sahara? With the passing of time, the latter may seem the more convincing explanation.
This leads inevitably to the third issue: how serious a threat is the jihadist outfit known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb? They have weapons and money from ransoms and smuggling. But after being crushed during the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, the jihadists have almost no constituency in Algeria, apart from some strongholds in the mountains of Kabylia. They are hated in southern Mali and distrusted - to say the least - among the population of the north of the country. They do more damage with money than ideology: the Malian elite stands accused of taking bribes from their smuggling activities, and foolishly seeing them as a counterweight to Tuareg nationalists.
Finally, the hardest issue: no counterterrorism strategy can ignore the role of the Algerian security services in manipulating the jihadists. It is no secret that Gen Mediene broke the Islamist insurgency of the 1990s by infiltrating their ranks and, it is alleged, instigating provocations of such brutality - including the slaughter of villagers - that the country turned against the rebels. The tactic worked.
The terrible secrets of that war remain locked away, while a generous amnesty for rebels ensures they stay that way. But still the question remains: are the remnants of the jihadists still infiltrated by the security services? Now that Qaddafi is gone, who is really taking charge of the cutthroats who roam the vast ungoverned spaces of the Sahara?
These are difficult questions, but getting answers is better than rushing in armed with the black-and-white stereotypes of the war on terror.
On Twitter: @aphilps