The successful seizure of the terror suspect Abu Anas al-Libi from his Libyan hideout shows how little has changed in the complex world of counterterrorism in the three decades since President Ronald Reagan issued his famous dictum: "You can run, but you can't hide." Reagan made the comment in 1985, shortly after ordering four US Navy F-14 Tomcats to intercept an Egyptian airliner carrying the four Palestinian terrorists responsible for hijacking the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro.
The terrorists had murdered a 69-year-old wheelbound passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, during their attack, and dumped his body, still slumped in his wheelchair, overboard. As with al-Libi's capture, the American intervention prompted howls of protest from human rights campaigners, and led to the resignation of Bettino Craxi, the Italian prime minister, despite the fact that the Palestinians were convicted of terrorism offences, and given lengthy jail sentences in Italy.
Now John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, finds himself repeating the Reagan doctrine as he attempts to defend last weekend's daring operation to capture al-Libi, who had been on the run for 15 years after being implicated in the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 220 people.
The authorities in Tripoli have condemned the US for the "kidnapping of a Libyan citizen". In reply, Kerry insisted that al-Libi's seizure was "appropriate and legal", stating: "We hope this makes clear that the United States of America will never stop in its effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror. Members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations literally can run but they can't hide."
Libya's interim government is currently struggling to exert its authority beyond the walls of the capital, and might have made a stronger case if it had bothered to initiate its own action to apprehend one of the world's most wanted men. Despite having a $5 million reward on his head, al-Libi was able to live a comfortable existence in his well-appointed villa just around the corner from the ransacked ruins of the British embassy on the Tripoli seafront. It now appears that the 49-year-old al-Libi - whose real name is Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqaie - had been living undisturbed in the capital for two years after returning to his homeland following the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in the summer of 2011.
According to relatives, he lived a relatively simple life, leaving his house only to visit the local mosque. It may well be that, having learnt that the British authorities had once granted al-Libi political asylum, the Libyans genuinely believed he posed no security risk. Indeed, al-Libi was interviewed by MI5 over allegations that he was involved in the 1998 embassy bombings, but was released through lack of evidence. If the Americans successfully prosecute al-Libi for his involvement in the attacks, MI5 will have some tough questions to answer. But such is the current state of chaos in Libya that it is hardly surprising that the authorities there neither had the will nor the resources to disturb al-Libi's daily routine, not even when his name surfaced as a possible organiser of last month's Kenya shopping mall attack.
Certainly, after the shocking scenes that took place in Nairobi, where the attackers deliberately targeted non-Muslims, US counterterrorism officials concluded they could no longer allow high-profile terrorist suspects to remain untouched, and launched simultaneous operations to capture al-Libi as well as the leaders of the al-Shabaab terror cell in Somalia, which has been blamed for planning the Kenya attack. Nor will Washington be unduly concerned that, by taking such action, it runs the risk of being accused of violating the sovereignty of the host nations.
After all, the sovereignty of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania suffered far worse violation when they were blown up by al-Qaeda militants, and the Americans have every right to argue that they are simply protecting themselves against future attacks by making sure al-Libi is safely locked up in their custody.
The attack last year on the American consulate in Benghazi, in which US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others died, is a graphic illustration of what happens when Islamist militant groups are left to their own devices. In terms of unilateral intervention, the US has been here before, when President Obama authorised the assault on Osama bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan.
The Pakistani authorities protested vociferously that the Americans had violated their sovereignty but, as the Pakistanis had no intention of doing anything themselves, the White House argued that it had no alternative but to take matters into its own hands; the President was obliged to honour his constitutional responsibility to protect the American people from attack.
Certainly, in an age when Islamist militants increasingly take refuge in the ungoverned space of failed or failing Muslim states such as Libya, ensuring they have no hiding place is essential if we are to prevent further Kenya-style atrocities.