Given the possible consequences, it would be facetious to suggest that there is anything amusing about the latest terrorist plot blamed on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The entity’s focus on fundamental garments is, nonetheless, bizarre.

On Christmas Day in 2009, a Nigerian identified as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab evidently attempted to detonate a bomb on a flight to Detroit. Fortunately, the detonator did not work and he was taken into custody. The explosives sewn into Abdulmutallab’s underpants are said to have been the handiwork of Ibrahim Al-Asiri, who, undeterred by the failure, apparently endeavoured to finesse the concept, and is alleged to have come up with a device equipped with more than one detonator. He failed again, this time because the person entrusted with delivering the deadly shock happened to be a mole rather than a dupe.

A couple of years ago, Al-Asiri is claimed to have gone even deeper in an attempt to assassinate Saudi Security Chief Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. The bomb-maker’s brother is said to have sought an interview with the prince while equipped with explosives concealed within an orifice proximate to his underpants. The detonator worked, yet the target survived.

This time the purported bomb - reportedly devoid of metallic elements and, therefore, potentially undetectable by most airport scanning devices - has ended up in the hands of the FBI. At the same time, the scanty revelations have stirred up something of a storm within the intelligence community, with a variety of former CIA operatives suggesting that absolute secrecy would have been the ideal option.

That’s not an altogether illogical opinion: it can certainly be argued that it would have been wiser to leave AQAP wondering about what had become of its latest underwear bomber than to make it clear that he was an infiltrator. Just a couple of months ago, the terrorist organisation released a video that culminated in the execution of a purported Saudi spy.

At the same time, concerns about revealing extent of collaboration between Saudi, American and British intelligence agencies is surely overblown. That they share information and, at least, occasionally act in concert could hardly come as a surprise to anyone. The mole, whose identity remains secret, was initially said to be a Saudi citizen, but subsequent reports indicated he was a British passport-holder of Yemeni provenance.

The UK passport meant he could travel to the US without a visa, which is believed to have increased his value in AQAP’s eyes. Presumably, it must also have meant he emerged unscathed from a thorough vetting procedure. Whether that would have sufficed for AQAP to simply hand him Al-Asiri’s latest innovation and ask him to don it on any flight he chose to take to the US must surely be open to doubt. Such a lax, laissez-faire approach hardly conforms with the image of AQAP as the deadliest al-Qaeda affiliate on earth.

Which is a reminder that the leaks so vociferously decried by sections of the intelligence community have been decidedly selective. The AP apparently sat on it for a few days at the request of the White House, with the latter worried that premature publicity could compromise the targeted assassination of Fahd Al-Quso, an AQAP leader said to have been wanted in connection with the USS Cole bombing of 2000. It has been suggested that he was also involved in the most recent plot, and that intelligence from the mole was crucial in pinpointing his whereabouts.

The latter factor is also said to account in part for MI6’s reticence about the affair, given that British intelligence agencies have been forbidden for 50 years from taking part in plots involving assassinations. No one suggests they have abided by this rule, but the British reputation for reserve comes in handy in such circumstances, and even the suggestion that Anglo spooks must be furious with their transatlantic cousins has come from American sources.

The Americans, on the other hand, have abandoned all qualms about playing judge, jury and executioner anywhere on earth, with parts of Yemen serving as the second busiest area of drone operations, after Pakistan’s border regions. Those behind these acts of war will no doubt have drawn some comfort from documents found in Osama’s last lair suggesting that the Al-Qaeda figurehead was deeply concerned about the predator and reaper raids in Waziristan.

It’s hardly remarkable, incidentally, that during his recent visit to Britain Pakistan’s Prime Minister ascribed bin Laden’s long-undetected presence in his country to “an intelligence failure from all over the world”, even as Islamabad has vociferously been denying American suggestions that Ayman al-Zawahiri is safely ensconced somewhere in Pakistan.

“Achieving targets” is a curious notion in this context, although it may find resonance in the US, where faith in drone strikes - notwithstanding their moral dubiousness and the rather obvious parallel with terrorist actions - is considerably stronger than support for a continued military presence in Afghanistan. “If the Bush administration didn’t like somebody,” Noam Chomsky told Democracy Now, “they’d kidnap them and send them to torture chambers. If the Obama administration decides they don’t like somebody, they murder them.” The Obama administration’s approach towards combating terrorism remains almost as excremental on the moral plane as the intentions of would-be underwear bombers.

n    The writer is a former assistant editor of Khaleej Times.