May 29, 2004
Conspiracy theories about how the kidnapped American died in Iraq are flying around the world. Richard Neville explores the explanations.
Iraq in flames, Washington an object of disgust. What to do? At this pivotal moment, CNN and Fox News are tipped off to a clip of an American citizen being beheaded. The victim is a 26-year-old idealist from Pennsylvania, Nick Berg. Despite the perpetrators being masked, the vile deed is deemed the work of al-Qaeda.
The clip was first “discovered” on an Islamic website in Malaysia. Its Arabic title reads “Abu Musab al-Zarqawi shown slaughtering an American”. al-Zarqawi is a 38-year-old Jordanian militant who fled to Iraq in 2001 after reportedly losing a leg in a US missile strike. al-Zarqawi’s face is widely known and he credits himself with the deed, so why a mask?
The timing of the video was brilliant for the West. Media pundits judged the crime a deeper evil than the systemic torture of innocent Iraqis. But some people sensed a rat. But if it was not al-Qaeda, who? Surely not Uncle Sam. That’s too dark, even for the CIA.
While this video shows a human body having its head chopped off, it does not necessarily portray an act of murder. Berg’s headless body was found dumped on a Baghdad roadside on Saturday, May 8.
Three days later, the “live beheading” clip was uploaded from London to the Malaysian website http://www.al-ansar.biz. The statement in the video is signed with al-Zarqawi’s name, dated May 11. After Fox News and CNN had downloaded the video, it disappeared from the site.
As no autopsy is available, little is known about the state of the body. No time of death, no forensic analysis. On April 6, a month before the discovery of the corpse, Berg had been released from custody. But whose custody?
Dan Senor, adviser to the US Presidential Envoy in Iraq, has said Berg was never held by the Americans. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the Coalition’s deputy head of operations, claimed he was in the custody of Iraqi police from March 24 to April 6. However, the Iraqi police chief, Major-General Mohammed Khair al-Barhawi, told Associated Press “the Iraqi police never arrested the slain American”.
Berg’s family are certain his jailers were the US military. His father, Michael, had been told so by the FBI. He has produced an email from a US consular official in Baghdad, Beth Payne, confirming that his son was in the hands of the US. (Later, another official said this was an error.) On April 5 in the Philadelphia office of the US Supreme Court, the Berg family had launched an action against the US military for false imprisonment. The following day, Berg was released.
The issue of custody is significant; in his final moments on screen Berg is wearing an orange jumpsuit of the kind familiar from Guantanamo Bay. The official reasons for Berg’s arrest were “lack of documentation” and “suspicious activities”. He carried sensitive electronic equipment for which he lacked documents. In custody, he was visited three times by the FBI. Such interviews are bound to have been recorded but no transcripts have been produced.
After his release, Berg travelled to Baghdad and the $30-a-night Al-Fanar Hotel. A fellow hotel guest told Newsday that Berg recounted how Iraqi police had quickly handed him to US authorities in Mosul and that he had been held the entire time in a jail where his guards were US soldiers.
Berg was in Baghdad to win contracts for his family firm, Prometheus Methods Tower Service, a provider of communications facilities. He often “worked at night on a tower in the neighbourhood of Abu Ghraib”, according to The New York Times.
The family last heard from him on April 9, when he said he was planning to leave Iraq via Kuwait as soon as it was safe. Berg was last seen walking with his bags the following day, apparently hoping to find his way through the turmoil engulfing the city and make it to the border.
On March 7, 2004, two weeks before his arrest in Mosul, an “enemies list” had been posted on a conservative website, FreeRepublic.com. The list was compiled from signatories to an anti-war petition, and its implied purpose was to encourage readers to harass those it named.
Berg’s father was on that list, as was the family firm, Prometheus. This information may well have triggered the arrest of Berg in Iraq.
Berg’s politics are not clear. His father, Michael, has described his son as a “staunch supporter” of US President George Bush. Friends said Nick believed he could help rebuild Iraq “one radio tower at a time”. According to The New York Times, he was attracted to the Hebrew concept of tikkun olam – healing the world through social action.
The first few seconds of the video shows Berg sitting on a white plastic chair in an orange jumpsuit. He speaks directly to the camera in a relaxed way: “My name is Nick Berg … I have a brother and sister, David and Sara. I live in Philadelphia.” His white chair is identical to those in the photographs of the Abu Ghraib prison tortures, but such chairs are probably common in Iraq. It is highly likely that this segment is edited from the interrogation of Berg during his 13 days of custody.
In the next scene, Berg is sitting on the floor with five masked figures standing behind him. We do not see the figures enter. Berg looks lifeless, though his body appears to make slight movements. A man reads a lengthy Arabic statement in a passionless monotone. He is identified as “Abu Musab al-Zarqawi”, a Jordanian associate of Osama bin Laden who is tied to dozens of terrorist acts.
Yet a leaflet recently circulated in Falluja, by no means a reliable source, claims that al-Zarqawi was killed in the Sulaimaniya mountains of northern Iraq during a US bombing. A US military report last month has claimed al-Zarqawi was killed in the bombing of Falluja.
Also, the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has said that al-Zarqawi was fitted with a prosthetic leg in a Baghdad hospital, yet the tape shows no evidence of a limp. CNN staff familiar with al-Zarqawi’s voice have been quoted as saying the voice does not sound like his.
Among the many curiosities raised on the web about the fanatical five are:
· They are well-fed, fidgety, and reveal glimpses of white skin.
· Their Arabic is heavily accented (Russian, Jordanian, Egyptian).
· An aside in Russian had been translated as “do it quickly”.
· One character wears wears bulky white tennis shoes.
· The man on the far left stands in the familiar “at ease” military posture.
· The men’s scarves are worn and tied by people who “haven’t a clue”, says conspiracy theorist Hector Carreon, like actors in Hollywood movies.
· There is even a voice at the end that seems to ask in English, “How will it be done?” [http://www.aztlan.net/nick_berg_how_done.htm]
None of this proves a grand conspiracy, but it does raise questions. In the final segment of the tape, Berg is thrown to the ground, but doesn’t move. During the decapitation, starting at the front of the throat, there is little sign of blood. The scream is wildly out of sync, sounds female, and is obviously dubbed.
Dr John Simpson, executive director for surgical affairs at the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, told Ritt Goldstein of the Asia Times, “I would have thought that all the people in the vicinity would have been covered in blood, in a matter of seconds … if it [the video] was genuine”.
Simpson agrees with other experts who find it highly probable that Berg had died before his decapitation.
But there is still the problem of Berg’s slight body movements while sitting on the floor, before the beheading. According to a blogger (internet diarist), Nick Possum, “this footage was subsequently modified frame by frame to make Berg’s body move very occasionally”. Apparently, this can be achieved with “commonly available software”. [http://www.brushtail.com.au/nick_berg_hypothesis.html]
Possum believes “the available evidence surrounding the case suggests that it was a ‘black operation’ by US psychological warfare specialists … to provide the media with a moral relativity argument to counter the adverse publicity over torture at Abu Ghraib”. The use of FBI footage in the opening sequence, if confirmed, suggests the involvement of high-level US Government operatives.
I do not know who killed Nick Berg, or how he died. But there’s something fishy about this video.
In the end, the question is: who killed Nick Berg, and why?