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Thursday, May 20, 2004

Debunking (And Rebunking) The Nick Berg Conspiracy Theory

By J.M. Berger

He's barely been dead a month, but he's already taken his place among the immortals. John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Ron Brown, Vince Foster... and now Nick Berg.

Man claiming to be Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, screen image taken from videoBerg, 26, was a private citizen traveling in Iraq, purportedly for the purpose of drumming up business for his telecommunications company, Prometheus Methods Tower Service Inc. Berg was kidnapped some time in April, and his dead body was found in early May.

Report: Berg was suspect in pipe bomb case

With such credentials, Berg was well on his way to becoming one more war statistic. Then the video surfaced.

In mid-May, as everyone now knows, a graphic video recording of Berg's death was posted to an al Qaeda-linked Web site. The video showed a masked man beheading Berg, after reading a statement that tied the slaying to widely publicized photographs of soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. The killer was identified as identified as terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Within hours the video was circulating widely on the Internet. And just a few more hours after that, a legion of armchair detectives began dissecting every frame. Within a day, breathless postings were peppering the Internet, finding suspicion in every aspect of the tape.

It's hardly surprising that Berg's brutal beheading would become the nexus of a conspiracy theory vortex. After all, there are more than a few legitimate questions about his young life and untimely death.

That isn't an excuse for letting imagination cut loose the bonds of reason, however, and most of the speculation about Berg's death can be discounted after a quick reality check.

But some intriguing contradictions and curious coincidences remain, and mainstream media reporting has emerged to suggest that Nick Berg's death might not be what it seems.

Here's a rundown of what people are saying, and a tough look at whether the questions are probing or just paranoid.

If you're seeing these bullet points for the first time, they may seem arcane. But to anyone who's spent five minutes cruising the Internet for stories on Nicholas Berg, they will already have a familiar, timeless quality, like the "grassy knoll" or the "magic bullet." Do these conspiracy theories have enough weight to keep Oliver Stone interested? Some may, but many do not.

  • Berg was killed by the U.S. government to distract attention from Abu Ghraib.

    This is by far the most commonly cited theory about Berg's death. Many of the more specific claims documented below are designed to end up at this premise. Questions of paranoia aside, the most patently obvious problem with this premise is that the Berg video cites Abu Ghraib as the reason for his killing. It's a poorly constructed conspiracy that seeks to divert attention from a topic by mentioning it prominently.

    Still image from Berg beheading video

  • Berg is wearing a U.S.-issue prison orange jumpsuit, which is evidence that he was killed in U.S. custody.

    Let's put aside the objections in the preceding item, and at least consider the chance that the CIA (or whomever in the U.S. government) was behind the killing, for whatever reason.

    After going to all this trouble and conducting a massive covert operation, is it really credible to suggest that They (with a capital T) were stupid enough to leave the victim in a prison-issue jumpsuit? It's well outside the bounds of reason to suggest the jumpsuit is evidence of any sweeping conspiracy.

    However, that doesn't even matter. First of all, it's debateable whether Berg is wearing a jumpsuit, and whether it's orange. Within the confines of the extremely low-quality video, the fabric appears satiny, there is no front opening or breast pocket visible (as seen in Iraqi prisoner pictures, such as the one below), and the color is not clearly discernible. From the image on screen, it could be a pink sarong almost as easily as an orange jumpsuit.

    The orange jumpsuit is used, but is hardly universal issue in Iraq or at Abu Ghraib. Although it's commonly used in prisons within the continental U.S., dozens of news photos show Iraqi prisoners in U.S. custody wearing street clothes or gray tunics. Orange-red jumpsuits are used more routinely at Camp X-Ray, in Guantanomo Bay, Cuba.

  • The white chair in the video is the same white chair in the Abu Ghraib prison photos.

    In the video, Berg is shown sitting in a chair very similar to one seen in some of the Abu Ghraib pictures. I had the same chair on my patio in an apartment I lived in 15 years ago. That doesn't connect me to this crime. It's a common indoor-outdoor chair, popular because it's cheap, durable and easy to clean (a decided plus in this context). Yes, it's weird to see the same chair in both settings. It doesn't prove anything, but it's weird.

  • The killer wasn't Zarqawi because he didn't show his face.

    As a reporter covering terrorist conspiracies online, I have received several e-mails and read endless Internet postings which claim that "it makes no sense" that Zarqawi would wear a mask in the video. This is flat-out wrong, a conclusion based on faulty logic and an incorrect understanding of the facts.

    This is the only known picture of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in circulationThere is only one known picture of Zarqawi, and it's several years old. Because of this, Zarqawi can move around Iraq and the region with nearly complete impunity. It would be completely insane for him to show his face, especially on such a provocative video.

    A precedent can be found in the videotaped killing of Daniel Pearl in 2002. It's believed Pearl was killed by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. The third most wanted terrorist in the world at the time (a distinction now held by Zarqawi), Khalid did not show his face on that video. There is absolutely no reason why Zarqawi would either.

    Regardless, it's important to remember all this does not actually prove Zarqawi was the killer. It's simply that the mask is a non-issue.

  • The men in the video are overweight, and terrorists wouldn't be fat.

    As with the preceding point, this is the worst sort of faulty statement. It's based on nothing, it's flat out false, and obviously so. Consider this: Why can't you apply the same logic to say that CIA operatives wouldn't be fat? Even better, consider Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, both top al Qaeda terrorists on the run in war zones, both heavy. And that's just off the top of my head.

  • The killer wasn't Zarqawi because he's wearing a gold ring, and wearing gold is forbidden by Islam.

    The central figure in the video appears to be wearing a ring, but again, the quality of the video makes it impossible to be sure. It does look like a ring (within a margin of error), but it there's no special reason to think it's gold. Wearing gold is forbidden for men in most forms of Islam, but wearing silver is sometimes permitted.

    Beyond the specifics of the "ring" itself, many Islamic fundamentalists connected to al Qaeda are members of al Takfir Wal Hijra, an extremist sect whose members are exempted from following the ordinary strictures of Islam.

    The exemption is meant to aid them in infiltrating Western society. They can drink alcohol, take drugs, skip prayers, engage in extramarital sex and have sex with women. Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri is Takfiri, and World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef closely fits the profile.

    Yousef and Khalid Shaikh used to pick up women in Manila discotheques. Zarqawi's terrorist tactics (as well as his stated political and theological views) are consistent with Takfiri beliefs. Thus, the ring is curious and interesting, but hardly conclusive of fraud.

  • Berg's business in Iraq sounds fishy.

    Berg's business in Iraq does indeed sound fishy. According to media reports, Berg was climbing telecommunications towers overlooking Abu Ghraib prison, despite the fact that no one had actually hired him to do so. He traveled the country with no visible means of support. He seemed to have befriended an extraordinary number of journalists (to judge from the many cited meetings in media reports).

    Sounding fishy and being dishonest are two different things, of course, but this is a reasonable question to raise and investigate. Score one for the conspiracy theorists. Or we would, if they didn't almost invariably proceed to the following claim...

  • There are no records of Berg's company. Ergo, it was simply a cover story for nefarious activity.

    Although there are only scant records to show his company existed, that's not inherently suspicious. By all accounts, Berg's business was a sole proprietorship with no assets, so there wouldn't be any paper trail to speak of.

    Technically, as a freelancer, I run my own business. I usually present myself in that manner. But I haven't incorporated or filed any other sort of paperwork for the simple reason that I have never needed to. The issue is also a non-starter.

  • Time of death, method of death, quality of audio, and the rest.

    After the first tier of claims listed above, there is a second tier of observations about the video which are correct and interesting, but not necessarily meaningful or important.

    For instance, many who have viewed the tape have noted inconsistencies and some graphic details which suggest Berg was killed first and decapitated later.

    This is almost certainly true. It's just not especially interesting. There are many reasons why Berg's captors might kill first and decapitate later. Without belaboring the point in graphic detail, it's easier and less messy to decapitate a victim who is already dead.

    Others have noted that the killers don't appear to have dark skin. However, the quality of the video is extremely poor and the color is clearly uneven to even the casual viewer.

    It's simply unreasonable to suggest the video's tint is proof of anything. And, as with the jumpsuit, it would take an extraordinarily foolish secret agent to flash pink skin on such a video when it would be so easy to put on a pair of gloves.

    Speaking of the poor video quality, several viewers have pointed out that it's difficult to tell whether the man in the video is actually reading the statement, or whether it's dubbed in.

    This is a valid question which may raise doubt as to whether Zarqawi was actually present at the killing. But it's also a double-edged sword. Critics can't cite this ambiguity and simultaneously claim that fine details in the video are meaningful.

    That Which Remains

    With all these loose and often non-credible claims, many presented with breathless abandon and near-fanatical fervor, it becomes easy for a smart, well-balanced observer to simply dismiss any and all arguments that the death of Nicholas Berg was anything beyond what it seems.

    That would be a mistake. There are still questions to be answered. Big, serious -- even paranoid -- questions. The most significant of these is the fact that Nick Berg has been definitively connected to a real live conspiracy, by no less a source than the FBI.

    According to CBS, CNN and others, Berg was questioned by the FBI after a computer password he used to access computers in college was found in the possession of alleged al Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui. (external link to CNN report)

    Zacarias MoussaouiAttorney General John Ashcroft confirmed a link to the September 11 investigation, but said the FBI investigated Berg and that the Justice Department does not believe Berg was linked to terrorist activity.

    Take that for what it's worth, obviously. But the coincidence of Berg's prior link to terrorism is a steep one, made even more curious by the fact that Zarqawi and Moussoui are closely linked. (related story)

    The same London mosque attended by Moussaoui was home to Zarqawi-linked terror cell, according to Newsweek. And Moussaoui's address book contained the contact information for a top Zarqawi lieutenant in Morocco, according to the Wall Street Journal.

    Related story: Cleric's Arrest in U.K. May Have Implications In Berg Slaying

    Berg was detained in Iraq, but it's not clear by whom. The U.S. has denied reports that he was detained by U.S. authorities, despite e-mails from the U.S. consul there (as reported by the Associated Press) which seem to suggest otherwise. Berg also told friends he was detained by Americans. (external link to AP story)

    Although U.S. officials say Berg was detained by Iraqi authorities, they have confirmed that the FBI interviewed Berg in an Iraqi prison on three separate occasions.

    Based on all this, there is a very real possibility of explosive disclosures yet to come in the Berg case. The rash of unfounded speculation online only serves to muddy the issue and to discredit the work of those who are trying to responsibly investigate the case.

    While such Hollywood-style scenarios as a "CIA psyops mission to divert attention from Abu Ghraib" seem to be highly unlikely, even a skeptic can credibly pose a serious question about whether Berg might have been an FBI informant.

    There's still a long, long way to go before the story of the life and death of Nicholas Berg is fully told. And there's an even longer way to go before anyone can prove that there is more to the story than meets the eye.

    While completely unproven and speculative, the "informant angle" is a premise with a lot of appeal. It may not be as sexy as claiming the U.S. government killed Berg, but it makes a lot more sense and it's consistent with the FBI's known counterterrorism practices. In the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the related NYC Landmarks case, the FBI aggressively used an informant named Emad Salem to collect information on terror cell activities. (related story)

    While more realistic, this idea is not without its paranoid charms. If Berg was truly an informant when he was killed, the next natural question is whether he was an informant when he encountered Moussaoui.

    If that turned out to be the case, then the failure to recognize Moussaoui's threat relative to the September 11 attack takes on almost mythic proportions, and a series of succeeding deceptions and cover-ups could fall into place like dominos.

    If true, the notion would be enough to shake the halls of power. And you never know, it might make a better movie too.


    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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