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Saturday, May 15, 2004

Berg Conspiracy Theories Run Thick, But Facts Are Few For Now

By J.M. Berger

UPDATE 5/20/2004:

Debunking (And Rebunking) The Nick Berg Conspiracy Theories -- INTELWIRE Analysis

The case of Nicholas Berg continued to receive close attention, as both mainstream and Internet media outlets examined the shocking revelation that Berg had contact with suspected al Qaeda terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui prior to September 11.

UPDATE: Four arrested in Berg beheading, Zarqawi gets away

A private citizen purportedly on an entrepreneurial mission to Iraq, Berg was beheaded on videotape by a man appearing to be Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the leading terrorist operators in the world today, according to the U.S. government. Berg apparently met Moussaoui, whom the U.S. accuses of participating in the September 11 attack, in Oklahoma. The date is unclear.

According to media reports, Berg allowed Moussaoui to use his computer password to access a network at the University of Oklahoma, which Berg attended. The FBI investigated Berg and says it cleared him of wrongdoing.

Media reports have been unclear about when the meeting took place, and several dates have been reported which conflict with the known movements of Moussaoui. Moussaoui and some 9/11 hijackers, including Mohammed Atta, were in Oklahoma in 2001.

Moussaoui and Zarqawi are linked, and possibly quite closely (related story). The fact Berg was connected to both of them raises significant questions. The current official explanation is that it's a coincidence. The size of the coincidence leaves many observers with doubts.

Although many Internet postings on the topic had tones ranging from slightly hysterical to extremely hysterical, even the mainstream newspapers oozed skepticism about the official version of the story as it stands.

According to the Washington Post:

Iraqi police arrested Berg in the northern city of Mosul on March 24. Maj. Gen. Mohammed Barhawi, the police chief in Mosul, said Thursday that Berg aroused suspicion because he was not carrying identification, according to National Public Radio. Two associates of Berg said this week, however, that he told them he had been carrying his U.S. passport and that police became suspicious because the passport contained an Israeli stamp.

Barhawi said the FBI asked the police to keep Berg in custody while its agents reviewed the case.

FBI agents questioned Berg on March 25 and 26 and a third time about a week later. He later told a friend that he was asked about terrorism.

FBI officials said Friday that the timing of the March interviews was a coincidence and did not affect the length of Berg's stay in Iraqi custody. It remains unclear why he was held for 13 days.
The New York Times also weighed in on the story:

That Mr. Berg's password may have been used by the terror suspect, who remains unidentified, has been a subject of news accounts since Thursday. But there are conflicting reports as to whether the password was discovered by the authorities in the belongings of Zacarias Moussaoui, who is in custody awaiting trial in an American court on charges related to the Sept. 11 attacks. And law enforcement officials were unwilling Friday to clear up those conflicts, citing a judge's order barring the parties from discussing the Moussaoui case.

The F.B.I. is investigating Mr. Berg's beheading, by militants in Iraq, which was captured on a grisly video posted on an Islamic Web site. Mr. Ashcroft pledged Friday to seek criminal charges in the United States against those responsible.

"Obviously we will work hard to make sure that the people who murdered Mr. Berg are brought to justice, and that would include indictment and prosecution and punishment," he said.

The attorney general would not discuss suspects in the Berg case, but intelligence officials say the beheading was most likely carried out by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant with ties to Al Qaeda.
There are a couple major questions that these stories are quietly trying to answer. The obvious path for speculation asks whether Berg might have been an intelligence operative, either for the U.S. or Israel (which he visited in recent years, according to Reuters).

While it's important to remember that absolutely no direct evidence has emerged in the public forum to support that notion, it's a very serious question for many reasons. The two most important are:

  • Media stories and U.S. government statements have characterized Berg as an "innocent civilian." If it turns out Berg was an intelligence operative of any sort, that characterization goes away. The beheading video has engendered significant sympathies among the Arab world, which would be reversed in an instant if it was discovered Berg was anything but an innocent bystander.

  • If Berg was an intel asset of any sort, and his connection to Moussaoui was related to an intel operation, then the question of pre-September 11 warnings and intelligence again rears its head.

    The Justice Department has accused Moussaoui of being involved in the 9/11 attack, and Moussaoui was in training to be a pilot when he met Berg.

    There are a few versions of this theory in circulation, including speculation on who Berg's employer would be if it were true. Candidates include the Mossad, the CIA and/or the FBI. The CIA seems particularly unlikely, since the agency usually doesn't direct people to work undercover, instead recruiting agents already within organizations. Before 9/11, the CIA was also (theoretically) banned from domestic spying.

    However, the FBI does tend to work with and encourage informants in a manner more consistent with Berg's movements. The FBI also met with Berg in Iraq.

    One example of the FBI's informant/infiltrator use is the story of Emad Salem, a key informant who helped break up a 1993 plot to blow up New York City landmarks. Originally, Salem was tangentially connected to the terrorist cell in the World Trade Center bombing. He volunteered to collect information for the FBI, and the FBI supported him in a full-fledged infiltration of the group.

    In light of the question regarding pre-9/11 intelligence failures as they relate to the Berg story, it's extremely noteworthy that the agency failed to heed Salem's warnings before the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and had actually fired him as an informant, as chronicled extensively by author Peter Lance in 1000 Years for Revenge -- The Untold Story of International Terrorism and the FBI. After the WTC bombing, the FBI reactivated Salem and used him to crack the Landmarks bombing.

    Could history have repeated itself in the case of Nicholas Berg? For now, the question remains decidedly unanswered.

    The other widespread topic of speculation around the 'Net is that Berg might have been somehow collaborating with the terrorists prior to his slaying. Again, there is no direct evidence to support such a notion. On the face of it, this seems even more unlikely than the spy theory, given his background and Jewish ethnicity.

    Fringe Internet outlets and various message boards have speculated on a whole host of other theories, most of which don't bear close examination based on the facts as we know them. Among the most colorful are suggestions that Berg's death was faked by the U.S. government to divert attention from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, or that he was actually killed by the U.S. for that reason.

    Many have analyzed the video trying to find clues to whatever the truth may be. INTELWIRE has reviewed the video and notes only that there is a clear break in taping between the drawing of the knife and the beheading. At most, this might suggest that Berg was killed first, then beheaded later, perhaps for the simple and uncomplicated reason that it would be easier and less messy to do it that way. (Click here for images of killing: Graphic content, discretion is advised)

    In a complex interconnected world, anything can happen. Anyone investigating terrorist links can tell you that it's pretty easy to draw dotted lines between any two figures on the map.

    Still, the extremity of the coincidence involved in Berg's short life and gruesome death are enough to prompt even the most skeptical observer to wonder whether he's getting the whole story. Whatever the case, it's a safe bet that the mainstream media will be investigating this story for some time to come.


    Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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    INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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