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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Violent Video Invokes Abu Ghraib Photos, But Don't Call It 'Revenge'

By J.M. Berger

An Islamic militant Web site posted a video showing the death of Nicholas Berg, a civilian contractor working in Iraq.

In the video, Berg is beheaded by an Islamic extremist believed to be Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the leading terrorists in the region and the third most wanted terrorist by the U.S.

Links to the uncut video footage are at the end of this story.

Related: INTELWIRE's terrorism video library for members

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Debunking (And Rebunking) The Nick Berg Conspiracy Theory

Images from video: Graphic content, viewer discretion is strongly advised

Although the killers cited the abuses at Abu Ghraib as the motivation for the killing, it's virtually certain that the videotaped murder is simply part of an ongoing campaign against U.S. occupation, Iraqi Shi'ites and Iraqis perceived as U.S. collaborators.

INTELWIRE has verified the screen-captured images here and those linked below against a copy of the video, which was obtained from the Muntada al-Ansar Web forum. Images are displayed below (content is graphic and may disturb some viewers). Links to the uncensored content are found below the images on this page.

In a statement read during the video, the man believed to be Zarqawi cited photos of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses, according to a translation by Reuters: "And how can free Muslims sleep soundly as they see Islam being slaughtered, honor bleeding, photographs of shame and reports of Satanic degradation of the people of Islam, men and women, in Abu Ghraib prison?"

Later, he said: "We tell you that the honor of Muslim men and women in Abu Ghraib and other (prisons) are more noble than blood and lives. And you will only get shroud after shroud and coffin after coffin slaughtered in this manner."

Zarqawi has historically killed quite freely without such a convenient pretext. The flurry of media reports characterizing this videotaped attack as "revenge" for Abu Ghraib are misleading. To characterize the Berg killing as an act of "revenge" for Abu Ghraib implies that it wouldn't have happened without the cited provocation.

Although the attack is obviously intended to resonate with the Abu Ghraib story, Zarqawi and other Iraqi militants have been killing U.S. soldiers and civilians for months. At most, the Abu Ghraib abuse enters a continuum of grievances held by radical Islamists against the West and the U.S. in particular.

That doesn't minimize the impact of the Abu Ghraib photos on the events unfolding in Iraq, but it's vitally important to remember the context and see those events for what they are.

Militants like Zarqawi don't need any additional motivation to kill Americans, but moderate Muslims and Arab governments can be provoked into withdrawing support for the War on Terror. The citation of Abu Ghraib in the tape is still an extremely significant development in the Terror War, and one that will likely resonate with that intended audience. (related story)

The video's impact will be most meaningful among non-Zarqawi insurgents in Iraq, noncombatant Iraqi citizens and the wider Arab public. This audience will associate the beheading tape with the prison torture scandal, which depicts the "Zarqawi" militants with a veneer of moral legitimacy and a reputation for bold action, likely increasing their public support.

The Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse photos (images) have created a great deal of ill will against the U.S. in Iraq and around the Arab world.

The probable release of new and more graphic photos from Abu Ghraib in the near future will further tip the sympathies of many undecided Iraqis toward Zarqawi and toward militant activity in general.

Prior to this incident, Zarqawi couldn't be characterized as "popular" figure in Iraq. Many of his attacks have targeted Iraqi Shi'ites and Iraqis perceived as collaborating with Americans. By positioning himself in the role of "avenger" of injustices at Abu Ghraib, it's possible Zarqawi could slip into a more populist, pro-Iraqi role.

Or maybe not. Even in the violent setting of the Middle East, the images are too extreme for some. As of Wednesday morning, NPR was reporting that the initial response from the Iraqi public was very uncomfortable, with some indicating that the video went "too far" in responding to the Abu Ghraib images, which are still a source of strong anger.

"Those psychopaths who committed this immoral crime should be brought before justice very rapidly and get their deserved punishment," Iraqi Human Rights Minister Bakhtiar Amin told CNN.

However, the element of Iraqi society responsible for the grisly killings at Fallujah likely sees the video in a different light. AFP reported that reactions on the ground in Iraq were mixed.

"From what we have seen, it was a natural reaction to the human rights violations at Abu Ghraib. What the Americans are doing now is terrible," a female dentist told AFP.

Updated 5/12/2004


Viewer discretion is advised. Images may be disturbing to some viewers. Link to complete set of images is below.


Warning: Extremely graphic content at links below.

Full Video at the Memory Hole

Full Video at Prison Planet

Uncensored images: Graphic content, viewer discretion advised


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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