way, say medical
experts By Ritt Goldstein
American businessman Nicholas Berg's body was
found on May 8 near a Baghdad overpass; a video of his
supposed decapitation death by knife appeared on an
alleged al-Qaeda-linked website (www.al-ansar.biz) on
May 11. But according to what both a leading surgical
authority and a noted forensic death expert separately
told Asia Times Online, the video depicting the
decapitation appears to have been staged.
certainly would need to be convinced it [the
decapitation video] was authentic," Dr John Simpson,
executive director for surgical affairs at the Royal
Australasian College of Surgeons, said from New Zealand.
Echoing Dr Simpson's criticism, when this journalist
asked forensic death expert Jon Nordby, PhD and fellow
of the American Board of Medicolegal Death
Investigators, whether he believed the Berg decapitation
video had been "staged", Nordby replied: "Yes, I think
that's the best explanation of it."
when the video's footage was taken, and the time elapsed
between the shooting of the video's segments, were
raised by both experts, reflecting a portion of the
broader and ongoing video controversy. Nordby, speaking
to Asia Times Online from Washington state, noted: "We
don't know how much time wasn't filmed," adding that
"there's no way of knowing whether ... footage is
contemporaneous with the footage that follows".
While the circumstances surrounding both the
video and Nick Berg's last days have been the source of
substantive speculation, both Simpson and Nordby
perceived it as highly probable that Berg had died some
time prior to his decapitation. A factor in this was an
apparent lack of the "massive" arterial bleeding such an
"I would have thought that all
the people in the vicinity would have been covered in
blood, in a matter of seconds ... if it was genuine,"
said Simpson. Notably, the act's perpetrators appeared
far from so. And separately Nordby observed: "I think
that by the time they're ... on his head, he's already
Providing another basis for their
findings, in the course of such an assault, an
individual's autonomic nervous system would react,
typically doing so strongly, with the body shaking and
jerking accordingly. And while Nordby noted that "they
rotated and moved the head", shifting vertebrae that
should have initiated such actions, Simpson said he
"certainly didn't perceive any movements at all" in
response to such efforts.
During the period when
Berg's captors filmed the decapitation sequence,
circumstances indicate that he had already been dead "a
quite uncertain length of time, but more than ...
however long the beheading took", Simpson stated. Both
Simpson and Nordby also noted the difficulty in
providing analysis based on the video, the inherent
limitations presented by this. But both also felt that
Berg had seemed drugged.
significant point in the video sequence occurred as
Berg's captors attacked him, bringing the supposedly
fatal knife to bear. "The way that they pulled him over,
they could have used a dummy at that point," reflected
Simpson regarding what the video portrayed. Separately,
Nordby said Berg does not "appear to register any sort
of surprise or any change in his facial expression when
he's grabbed and twisted over, and they start to bring
this weapon into use".
Subsequently, Nordby said
it was likely that the filming sequence was manipulated
at the point immediately preceding this, allowing Berg's
corpse to be used for the decapitation sequence. Nordby
also emphasized that the video "raises more questions
than it answers", with the most fundamental questions of
"who are you, and how did you die", being impossible to
answer from it. But broad speculation exists regarding a
number of factors surrounding both Berg's death and the
video, and its timing in regard to revelations of US
In a May 13 article, the
Arabic newsgroup Aljazeera reported that a Dubai-based
Reuters journalist first broke the story, "but while Fox
News, CNN and the BBC" were able to secure the video
from the "Arabic-only website" that hosted it, Aljazeera
was unable to locate it. And also on May 13, the
Associated Press (AP) reported that the US Central
Intelligence Agency had determined that Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi was the individual who beheaded Berg.
Since Secretary of State Colin Powell's United
Nations presentation of February 5, 2003, al-Zarqawi has
been portrayed as the single most dangerous element
facing the Bush administration's "war on terror".
Powell's UN presentation has since been widely accepted
as empty; nevertheless, al-Zarqawi appears to have
surpassed even Osama bin Laden as the administration's
No 1 terror target. And on May 15, Brigadier-General
Mark Kimmitt, the Coalition Provisional Authority's
chief Iraq military spokesman, declared that al-Zarqawi
will be eventually caught, though that may prove
On March 4,
Brigadier-General David Rodriguez of the Joint Chiefs of
staff revealed that the Pentagon didn't have "direct
evidence of whether he's [al-Zarqawi] alive or dead",
providing commentary on the nature of prior "evidence"
linking al-Zarqawi to attacks and bombings. But that
same day, AP reported that an Iraqi resistance group
claimed al-Zarqawi had been killed the April prior in
the US bombing of northern Iraq.
the record, intelligence community sources have
previously said they believe it "very likely" that
al-Zarqawi is indeed long dead. Such a fact makes
al-Zarqawi's alleged killing of Berg difficult to
reconcile, and there has been broad speculation that
blaming al-Zarqawi is an administration ploy. Further
anomalies surrounding Berg's death have fueled added
According to e-mails sent from a US
consular officer in Baghdad, Beth Payne, to the Berg
family, Nick Berg was being held in Iraq "by the US
military in Mosul". A May 13 AP report notes that a US
State Department spokesperson subsequently said this was
untrue, an error, and that Berg was being held by Iraqi
authorities. But another May 13 AP report quoted "police
chief Major-General Mohammed Khair al-Barhawi" as
claiming that reports of Iraqi police having held Berg
And Berg is seen on the
beheading videotape in what appears to be US military
prison-issue clothing, sitting in what appears to be a
US military-type white chair, virtually identical to
those photographed as used at Abu Ghraib prison.
However, the taking of hostages has occurred in the
region, and beheadings are not unheard of.
According to a February 2003 report by Human
Rights Watch (HRW), on September 23, 2001, radical
Islamists captured a group of 25 Kurdish fighters in the
Iraqi village of Kheli Hama. "Some prisoners' throats
had been slit, while others had been beheaded," HRW
reported, noting that the television station KurdSat had
broadcast pictures of the dead that September 26. The
report also noted that a videotape "apparently filmed"
by those committing the atrocities had been found.
The strict Islamist community in Iraq denied
that the acts were committed by their people, stating
that the incident was fabricated.
reports of beheadings also exist, with the victims
usually noted as killed with a bullet before the
beheading occurs. But HRW's report also raised an issue
that the Berg video's makers, and Berg's father, both
raised: prisoner exchange.
HRW noted that Iraq's
radical Islamists did pursue exchanges of captives, and
the Berg video specifically noted that his captors
claimed they were killing him as their attempts to
exchange Berg had been rebuffed by US authorities.
Berg's father, Michael, has pressed the administration
of US President George W Bush as regards what the facts
of this allegation are, with the administration denying
any knowledge that such a trade was offered. And added
questions still exist.
Because Iraq's radical
Islamists speak in a particular manner, and live by a
closely proscribed code, apparent contradictions between
these ways and the way Berg's captors appeared has
generated speculation. Some observers have speculated on
the possibility that the individuals weren't native
Arabic speakers. Conversely, it is reported that in
Saudi Arabia, where Sharia law allows for beheadings in
cases of severe crimes, the condemned is heavily drugged
with tranquilizers prior to the execution, reportedly
leaving them in a state similar to that which Berg
appeared in during parts of the video.
Nordby emphasized that the video "raises more questions
than it answers".
Ritt Goldstein is an
American investigative political journalist based in
Stockholm. His work has appeared in broadsheets such as
Australia's Sydney Morning Herald, Spain's El Mundo and
Denmark's Politiken, as well as with the Inter Press
Service (IPS), a global news agency.
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