In the Persian Gulf, in late July 1996, American warships, a full complement of military hardware, and nearly 4,000 Marines, sailors and SEALs, were praying they could pull off the mission of their lives. They had been assigned to grab the man, who before September 11th, had killed more Americans than any other terrorist.
His name is Imad Mugniyah, and U.S. intelligence believed they had tracked him to the waters of the Persian Gulf, aboard a merchant ship, the Ibn Tufail.
Marine commander John Garrett helped plan this top-secret mission to take down the ship, and take Mugniyah into custody. This is the first time he has ever talked about it publicly. In fact, no one involved has ever talked about it, until now. Dan Rather reports.
"If we're going to take down a ship, as in this case, you would like to have some sort of scare factor, a fly-over, low down, by jets," he says. "Maybe even a strafing run or something off to the side. Simultaneously accompanied by a boarding of the vessel from the air which could be helicopters hovering and then fast-roping down to a spot that's been picked on the deck."
"Simultaneous to that, ideally you have a surface up attack from boats or craft in the water to go up the side of the ship."
"So it's the element of surprise, of combined arms, of massing everything that you have in a sequential or phased manner, to try to get the advantage and maintain it."
Garrett says that all of this was in place.
One month earlier, 19 Americans had been killed in the bombing of the Khobar Towers Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia. The suspected mastermind? Imad Mugniyah. When intelligence indicated he might be aboard the Ibn Tufail, a massive operation was mounted almost overnight.
Why would the U.S. send an armada for this one man?
"He is the most dangerous terrorist we've ever faced. He's a pathological murderer," says longtime CIA agent Bob Baer, who has chased Mugniyah for years. "Mugniyah is probably the most intelligent, most capable operative we've ever run across, including the KGB or anybody else. He enters by one door, exits by another, changes his cars daily, never makes appointments on a telephone, never is predictable. He only uses people that are related to him that he can trust. He doesn't just recruit people. He is the master terrorist, the grail that we have been after since 1983."
That's when Mugniyah began his bloody career. He is accused of planning the bombing of the Beirut Marine barracks, murdering 241 Americans. He is the prime suspect in two bombings of America's embassy in Beirut. Then in 1985, Mugniyah was identified as the man behind the brutal hijacking of a jet bound for Rome. Among the passengers was American Navy diver Robert Stethem. Mugniyah and his men beat Stethem for hours, then shot him and dumped his body onto the tarmac.
For two decades, Mugniyah has been so elusive that even capturing his image is difficult. Before the mission, SEAL platoon commander Tom Short was handed one of the few photos to help identify Mugniyah when he and his team were ordered to take over the Ibn Tufail. It was, he says, a very important mission.
"This guy was responsible for the deaths of 250 Marines, maybe more. That made you want to get him. But you know, not only what happened in the past, but what was gonna happen in the future, if we didn't get him," says Short. Every man on the mission was a volunteer, he says.
The plan came together quickly. U.S. Navy forces and marines were on routine duty in the Gulf. When without warning, they were scrambled for the top-secret operation.
The opportunity unfolded on July 23, when word came that Mugniyah was aboard the Ibn Tufail, which was docked in Doha, unaware that four American warships were stalking it.
Beginning in Bahrain, they sailed around the Peninsula of Qatar, and shadowed the ship as it moved along the Persian Gulf Coast. Ship logs show the Americans practiced their takedown tactics, and pored over intelligence reports.
"I'd never seen the kind of intelligence we had during this mission. I mean, in less than 48 hours," says Short. "We had blueprints to the ship, the layout of the ship, pictures of the ship. Who was the crew, what they were carrying, what was their schedule. I mean it was just amazing to me the amount of intelligence that we had."
"Every minute counts. Time is of the essence. Every minute's golden. And so for 24 hours, we just planned around the clock," says Garrett.
Bill McSwain was a Marine sniper. "I had four sniper teams on the ship with me, arranged from bow to stern in different positions. And in addition, because this was such a critical mission, we actually put snipers in helicopters."
By nightfall of July 24, the Americans knew they were just hours away from taking down their target.
"We almost felt like we were dogs on a leash ready to go," says McSwain.
There was nothing left to do but pull the trigger on the plan. In place, ready to attack, were 60 SEALs assigned to board the ship in secret. Dozens of Marine commandos, and hundreds of others were ready to search the ship from stem to stern.
Then with one word from Washington, all the planning, all the adrenaline, and all the hope… for thousands of American sailors and Marines, came crashing down.
The mission was called off.
Says Short: "I was just stunned. I mean disbelief. I mean it had been almost 48 hours at that point. And none of us had slept, and at the end of that, they tell you that it's off, not standby, not be prepared, to just forget about it."
"The explanation that I recall was they couldn't verify that the target was still on board the vessel," says Garrett. Garrett believed that.
For some of the men, that explanation wasn't enough. For years, they blamed President Clinton for not going through with the mission.
"This is a man who President Clinton authorized numerous operations to get. This is not the only one we tried to do. And since we're still trying to get him. I think its better not to get into too many details," says Nancy Soderberg, who was President Clinton's deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs.
"It was just simply that when the final go- no-go decision comes you need to make sure that the information is there to justify moving. And in this case, unfortunately, it was not. No one wants to conduct an operation that you know in advance is going to be a failure if the target's not in your cross hairs. In this case, I think what it demonstrates is the commitment of President Clinton to do everything possible to get Mugniyah."
If there was even a remote possibility that Mugniyah was on that vessel "President Clinton would have gone. No question about it," she says.
But for the men who wanted to catch Mugniyah, standing down was the most difficult order to carry out.
Garrett said it was very important to the Marines. "I think it was critically important. I think this could have been one of those life-changing events that had it been successful, would have been, certainly for me, would have eclipsed anything that I had done in my career before, including Desert Storm."
Bill McSwain read us the entry he had made in his diary the night the operation was called off.
"We were so close we could taste it," he wrote. "Maybe we'll get another shot at this guy, but probably not. I think I just missed the biggest chance I'll ever get. Why couldn't it have turned out differently?"
What would it have meant the last few years if Mugniyah had been out of commission?"
"I think you could go a long way toward unraveling or even preventing a September 11th, by getting a person like this," says Baer.
Says Short: "9-11 happens. And I remember walking into the kitchen that morning, turning on the TV, and staring at that plane, flying into the World Trade Center. And at that instant, i thought 'Is this guy involved? Did he have a hand in the planning? What would have happened if we had gotten him?'"
Copyright 2002 CBS. All rights reserved.