Following the beheading of Nicholas Berg in May by terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the killing became the latest in a long line of conspiracy theories to emerge from the Arab and Iranian media.
Ibrahim Al-Fayoumi, a member of Egypt’s Al-Azhar Islamic university, stated on May 12 that the beheading of any person, dead or alive, is forbidden by Islamic law, but that he thought that the Berg case was “American propaganda to divert from the [Abu Ghraib] scandal.”
An article titled “The Unexamined Life of Nicholas Berg,” which appeared in the Saudi daily Arab News on May 21, questioned Nick Berg’s presence in Iraq, alluding to his alleged connections to the Mossad as a “communication spy.” The article also expressed doubt over Al-Zarqawi’s involvement in Berg’s murder.
The May 18 Tehran Times included an article that called the Berg beheading a fraud: “Not only were the purported screams of Nick Berg not in synchrony with the decapitation, but there was also a total lack of blood…. We forwarded the video to…a forensic expert…. He wrote back…that in his opinion the video is a fraud….” The paper cited “La Voz de Aztlan” as its source.
On May 20, Sheik-Attar, an Iranian political commentator, appeared on Iranian channel Jaam-E-Jam 2 and blamed the CIA for murdering Berg to overshadow the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. He explained that previous U.S. actions had established a precedent for this kind of action: “A chance observation of the Bay of Pigs and Cuba affair [shows that] a senior CIA official told [CIA director] Allen Dulles, ‘We can sacrifice seven or eight Americans there.’ That was supposed to serve as pretext for attack, but Kennedy opposed it. This is not unprecedented. Absolutely, that is their method.”
A May 15 story on Aljazeera.net discussed conspiracy theories in online Arab chat rooms regarding the Berg beheading, and the article “raised numerous questions concerning its authenticity.” Questions addressed: Why Nick Berg was wearing an orange jumpsuit, the timing of the executioner’s announcement that Berg was to die for “Iraqi prisoner abuse,” and Berg’s Jewish background. Other questions included why “the body is completely motionless even as the knife is brought to bear …” The Arab bloggers write that the accent of the executioner is not Iraqi or Jordanian, and that Al-Zarqawi was believed to have been killed in March. One writer observes that Al-Zarqawi’s face is so well-known that one must ask: “Why would he bother to cover it?”
Fares.net, one of the first Arabic Internet sites, concluded that the videotape was a fabrication. Translations of the Arab bloggers’ statements include: The bodies of the killers looked husky, unlike the thin and agile bodies of Iraqis; the killers’ hands looked very white; their motions looked like those of Westerners; in the videotape a Western voice was heard saying, “thy will be done,” which is an expression that even an Arab well versed in English would not use; and the chair on which Berg was sitting is the same kind that Lynndie England was photographed sitting in, and is the same kind as the chairs seen in Abu Ghraib.
Other questions brought up by the Arab bloggers include: Was Berg used to carry out the bombings that Al-Zarqawi was accused of? Did the U.S. set the killing up to save Bush’s standing in the upcoming elections? One person wrote, “If you thought that the Americans could not possibly go that far…remember the black history of the CIA…and remember who killed the president of the U.S. John Kennedy?” Another wrote, “Since Berg visited several countries in the world, he could have been a Mossad agent, and the Mossad wanted to get rid of him…”
The site included side-by-side close-up pictures of Berg, one of him with a beard from the beheading videotape, and another photo–this one featuring a bespectacled Berg–released by his family. A line was drawn along his nose, which was supposedly straight in the family picture and crooked in the beheading one. The caption under the pictures says, “Notice the difference. The real Berg is on the left, not the one in prison garb.”
Like many other conspiracy theories circulated in the Middle East, this one will, sadly, also likely gain acceptance as time goes by.
–Steven Stalinsky is executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute.