Air strikes this week on alleged Al Qaeda figures in Somalia may prove to be one of the last counterterrorism operations associated with a controversial Pentagon general who has overseen the deployment of secret U.S. Special Ops teams against suspected terror plotters, defense experts close to the Pentagon and intelligence community tell NEWSWEEK.
Lt. Gen.William Boykin and his boss, soon-to-depart Defense Undersecretary for Intelligence Steve Cambone, have guided or taken part in the planning of such covert operations against Al Qaeda-linked groups in several countries since 9/11. There is no indication that new Defense Secretary Robert Gates disagrees with the Somalia operation this week. But Boykin has long been a divisive figure. A devout evangelical Christian, he achieved notoriety in October 2003, when he was videotaped telling a church audience that the god of a Muslim warlord was "an idol" and that "my God was a real God." Boykin and Cambone have also generated controversy by allegedly seeking to wrest control of intelligence-gathering from the CIA. Gates has said he is especially determined to improve cooperation between the Department of Defense and the CIA. In written testimony during his confirmation process last fall, Gates said he was "unhappy about the dominance of the Defense Department in the intelligence arena"—a key element of Cambone's and Boykin's approach.
While Cambone's departure has been announced, Boykin's has not. A Defense Department spokesman would not confirm Wednesday that Boykin was planning to retire, but he declined to deny it either. "There have been no announcements about his retirement," said the spokesman, Maj. David Smith. A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity owing to the sensitivity of the subject, said that Boykin currently was still on the job. But word around the Pentagon was that Gates would ask Boykin to go, this official said. Consultants who work with the intelligence and Special Operations community said it was all but certain that Boykin was following Cambone out the door. "If you're getting rid of Cambone, you almost certainly have to get rid of Boykin," says Philip Giraldi, a former CIA counterterrorism official who stays in touch with the community. "They're hand in glove. Gates feels it all went out of control, that they're doing too many things in too many places."
Boykin still has supporters inside the defense and intelligence community who say they will be sorry to see him go. Considered a near-legendary figure in the Special Operations community, Boykin was badly wounded in the "Black Hawk Down" attack in 1993 in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, where he commanded Delta Force. And his strategy of quietly destroying jihadist cells outside Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 has had its successes. Among them: the capture of Algerian terrorist Abderrazak al-Para in 2004, the assassination of a jihadist leader in Yemen by a Hellfire missile strike in 2004 and the routing of the Abu Sayyaf terror group from Basilan Island in the Philippines. "It was Gen. Boykin who had the best chance of becoming the Patton of the war on terror," says John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, Calif. "He really wanted to put the W back in GWOT"—referring to the White House acronym for the global war on terror.
But the killing of innocents in some of these attacks has been costly to America's reputation as well. The attacks in Somalia by U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunships temporarily based in neighboring Kenya began on Sunday. They were launched by the Joint Task Force based in Djibouti, with help from the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, the CIA and the National Security Agency, as well as Ethiopian forces. The targets: a handful of Al Qaeda operatives suspected in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as other alleged Al Qaeda associates in Somalia, U.S. officials said. The jihadis were believed to be on the run since U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces overran Mogadishu a week ago. According to an official U.S. State Department cable described to NEWSWEEK, the Al Qaeda suspects were "co-located" with forces of the fleeing Islamic Courts Union in remote southern Somalia.
Pentagon spokesman Joe Carpenter said the targets were "principal Al Qaeda leadership in the region. We're not discussing their identities or the individuals that were targeted." However, intelligence officials said U.S. forces were hoping that at least one of the three of the figures involved in the planning of the 1998 embassy attacks was among the dozens reported killed by the strikes. Two senior intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the details of the operation were classified, said it was not confirmed whether any of the Al Qaeda figures was dead.
Critics of the covert program say that Gates and Cambone's replacement, Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper, are concerned that too much collateral damage may work against U.S. interests. Giraldi says the U.S. Special Ops teams operate too often without accountability, not even notifying the local U.S. Embassy of their presence. In one case in East Africa a clandestine team was arrested by the host government and had to be bailed out by the ambassador, Giraldi says. Adds Arquilla, an advocate of dropping small teams into countries rather than launching air strikes: "There's a growing realization in the Pentagon that the more collateral damage is done, the worse is our position in the 'battle of the story'—in other words, every time we kill innocents our story is much less compelling and the clash of civilizations story is much more compelling."
Boykin has largely operated in the shadows—his only official title is deputy undersecretary of Intelligence—and Pentagon spokesmen say neither he nor Cambone is officially involved in operations, only policy. But last spring, Sen. John Warner, then the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, came out publicly against a bid to name Boykin head of Special Operations Command.