The Curious Case of Benjamin Vanderford

Written by Mark Astley

Time gradually strips away the importance of historical events in the public consciousness, relegating all but the most seismic events or those who loomed large in the popular zeitgeist to footnotes. New media accelerates this process, with historical events and agents (and pop culture is included in this) being elevated to hyper relevance and then swiftly consigned to obscurity. New media the term itself sounds dated, simply because it doesn’t feel so new anymore, belonging to 2004, when Benjamin Vanderford was briefly a thing. As they say context is everything, and Vanderford belonged to a time when real death on film for propaganda purposes was emerging as a 21st century fashion. Snuff was no longer a myth; people were being killed purely so the act could be recorded, with the executioners showing varying levels of proficiency and enthusiasm.  Later the likes of real life horror shows such as ‘One lunatic one Icepick’ and ‘Three guys one hammer’ would show murder just for jollies, but at the advent of the millennium snuff was largely guided by ideology.

As handheld video cameras became cheaper and more readily available from the late 1980s onwards, Islamic extremist and terrorist networks quickly realised their utility.  Audio and videotape were used at first to disseminate political and ideological propaganda in the form of provocative and incendiary speeches by radical clerics and distributed at conferences and mosques.  Such media were largely used for internal purposes within the Islamic extremist community. Through the middle of the 1990s the Islamist militants, swayed by Osama bin Laden, augmented their filmmaking. Bin Laden, who had an aptitude for media and marketing, knew intuitively how to construct potent, slickly conceived packages full of mythical references and language that would directly tap into widely felt, though often unarticulated, sentiments in the Islamic world. His press conferences were carefully managed with extras brought in to bulk up the crowds of acolytes and footage carefully assembled before release. Jihadist video as a medium for mass consumption did not occur until after September 11 2001 when major media outlets endlessly replayed the footage of the two planes crashing into the World Trade Centre towers and the devastated Pentagon.  Terrorist groups and their affiliates recorded these images and distributed them; soon footage of the attack was widely circulated on the Internet often intercut with speeches by terrorist leaders such as bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. The new technology allowed the jihadists a large Muslim and Arab audience online.  Western journalists remarked on the development but it was the murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in February 2002 that brought the public’s attention to a new form of extremist Islamist propaganda video; Pearl was the first Westerner to join the macabre iconography of a nascent entertainment sub-genre, the beheading execution video.

Screenshot from the Daniel Pearl Execution Video.

Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered in Karachi, Pakistan. At the time of his kidnapping, Pearl had been investigating the case of Richard Reid, the would be shoe bomber, and the alleged links between al-Qaeda and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. A videotape of his murder was distributed after his death, but the face of his killer could not be seen. The three-minute video was enthusiastically received after its posting on dedicated Islamist websites in Saudi Arabia, a country that supplies tens of thousands of recruits and vast financial subsidies to the cause of Islamist jihad. The first part of the video, which is virulently anti-Semitic, depicts Pearl stating his captors’ demands, accompanied by Arabic sub-titles. Images of dead Muslims and similar scenes are superimposed around the image of Pearl. Other images shown are those of United States President George W. Bush shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. On the image to the right, the text in Arabic reads: My name is Daniel Pearl; I am a Jewish-American. Moving images and stills of Pearl being decapitated are juxtaposed with images of perceived injustices against Muslims such as captives in Guantánamo Bay. The last ninety seconds of the video show a list of the group’s demands scrolling, superimposed on an image of Pearl’s severed head being held by the hair. On February 21, 2002, a videotape titled ‘The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl’ was released to the Pakistani and United States governments. 

The actual body spectacle in the Daniel Pearl video is, though shocking, mercifully elliptical.  A montage of images of wounded Palestinian children and explosions cuts to video footage of Pearl naked from the waist up with his executioner sawing at his throat, there is a cut to the action later on with Pearl’s head almost completely removed, then there is a final cut to a still of Pearl in a bloodied shirt, head lolling back and throat slit. It is obvious this image is actually from before the decapitation, so the images shown are not in continuous sequence, and the entire slaying lasts only a few seconds. The denouement is a shot of the executioner in a white T-shirt raising Pearl’s severed head into the air, what is particularly disquieting is that the killer’s head is covered by Pearl’s, obscuring his features. Testimony from the trial of those involved in the killing revealed that a technical error actually prevented the initial throat slit from being captured; someone had neglected to remove the lens cap. For the final ninety seconds, Pearl’s raised head is superimposed against a black background down which scroll a list of demands by the terror group who abducted him.  The screen cinematically fades to black at the close of the video, which hints at the cine-literacy of the producers

Pearl’s killing had been regarded as a horrific anomaly until the release in May 2004 of a video depicting the staged beheading of an American contractor Nick Berg by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad group. Zarqawi’s jihadist group eventually came under the al-Qaeda franchise and became more commonly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. Berg’s death inaugurated a catalogue of recorded executions of hostages, all of which found their way into the archives of Western shock sites like the once mighty Ogrish after being initially posted on jihadist websites.  The catalyst, or media ‘hook’ for the steady flow of exhibition murder videos was widely regarded to be the pictures of prisoner abuse that arose out of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. The footage of the Nick Berg execution by fundamentalists emphasised that digital technology was something that any side could utilise to garner support. The release of the ‘snuff’ video confirmed that digital technology was an asymmetric tool of war that any side could use to manipulate public opinion.  

The Beheading Aesthetic. Screenshot from the Nick Berg Execution Video

Posted on an Islamic website and bearing the title ‘Abu Musab al-Zarqawi shown slaughtering an American’, the videotape showing the murder of Nick Berg represented a turning point in the Iraq war of images.  In a grainy execution video captured on a digital video camera, Berg is seen sitting in a Guantánamo Bay style orange jump-suit in front of five armed hooded men.  One of the men behind Berg reads a statement that refers to the ‘satanic degradation’ of Iraqi prisoners and promises the mothers and wives of American soldiers that coffins will be arriving to them one by one.  After identifying himself to the camera, Berg is wrestled to the ground and decapitated with a large knife. The global execution was seen as the first violent response to photographic evidence of prisoner abuse by U.S. captors at Abu Ghraib and was an indication that al-Qaeda was operating in post-war Iraq, with the alleged executioner al-Zarqawi having links to the Ansar al-Islam group in north-eastern Iraq.  Berg’s headless orange jump suited body was found hanging by the ankles from a Baghdad highway overpass a few days after the release of the execution footage.  Pictures of the dangling cadaver soon found their way onto the net as Berg’s killing was streamed on a web site linked to al-Qaeda.  Mainstream American outlets used restraint in distribution of the footage, showing Berg sat in front of his captors but cutting away before the ‘money shot’.  Berg’s last moments appeared on a day when CNN reported the U.S. government possessed photos of Abu Ghraib prisoners being sodomised with chemical glow sticks presenting news editors (at least those with aspirations to impartiality) with extremely difficult editorial calls. 

The death of Berg heralded a spate of beheading videos featuring Westerner workers who had been kidnapped by the Zarqawi group.  Usually, the group issued an initial video showing the hostage in captivity pleading for their life or reading political statements from a script followed by the second video release depicting the beheading of the captive. In these, human beings are reduced to the status of stage props; in some videos the executioner pauses from his task so the camera can zoom in on the spectacle of the ‘snuffee’ attempting to breathe through a severed windpipe.  The audio track is often integral to the visceral power of the execution videos, with the body manipulated to create as distressing a spectacle as possible, and the cries of the victim are upsetting not just because they testify to the endurance of pain but the way they signify the limits of language itself. And new media meant the death rituals were easy to capture and distribute.Despite the insurgents camped in occupied Iraq having meagre resources in terms of weapons and manpower in contrast to the monolithic coalition force, their highly effective use of the new media forms that emerged from the mid to late 1990s starkly illustrated the importance of virtual triumphs in the information battleground.  The Nick Berg ‘snuff’ video emphasised the reality of modern warfare as being as much fought out on the television screen as on the battleground; actual victories were no longer important when ascendancy in the horror stakes was a major battlefield gain.  

Zarqawi became a ‘star maker’ in a genre that took guerrilla/propaganda film making to an almost unimaginable cultural extreme. As mentioned earlier, Berg’s death marked the beginning of a steady flow of ‘snuff videos’ of foreign workers and ‘disloyal’ Iraqis. Although the beheading videos gained Zarqawi and his group notoriety, many hard-line Muslims felt they were sickening and self-defeating.  A memo was discovered from bin Laden’s deputy al-Zawahiri instructing Zarqawi to curtail his bloody activities; Zarqawi’s group changed their modus operandi, shooting rather than beheading captives. Yet, what finally reduced the steady flow of snuff videos was the growing indifference of the Western media, the shock of the new had faded and the videos were now regard as a repulsive commonplace with decreasing influence on popular opinion. Zarqawi himself has long been part of the tapestry of death media.  After his death in a bombing raid by U.S. forces in June 2006, photographs of his bloodied face in death were presented to the world’s media as proof of his demise.  In death, his corpse was an artefact presented as evidence. His willingness to kill Muslim civilians across the Middle East had alienated large swathes of the Arab world and his presentation in death was not greeted with the controversy that had accompanied the post mortem unveiling of Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay back in 2003. Yet Zarqawi’s legacy endures, with his Jama’at group evolving into the jihadist miltant group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, more commonly known as ISIS, who would follow the snuff aesthetic laid down earlier and who from roughly 2014 onwards been producing atrocity videos that are often staged with grotesque inventiveness and are technically accomplished with an often cinematic flair, heralding Snuff 2: HD ready.

Vanderford makes tearful plea in lawn chair.

In the midst of this heady mix of superpower politics, 24/7 media coverage and guns and gore emerged one of the curiosities that are often left in the wake of major events, ones that have no real cultural afterlife but remain in the footnotes of their time like chicken in aspic; such is the fate of the Vanderford hoax. In 2004, a fake beheading video was constructed by three San Francisco residents, Benjamin Vanderford, Laurie Kirchner and Robert Martin, with the intention of showing how erroneous information could be disseminated as fact over the Internet. The video has the ‘star’ Benjamin Vanderford  rocking backwards and forwards in a lawn chair and addressing the camera in a parody of  Daniel Pearl’s final address, which culminates with Vanderford lying on the floor smeared with fake blood while one of his colleagues makes an unconvincing sawing motion at his neck with a vegetable knife.  

Intercut with grisly photographs of war victims the film makers took from a Middle Eastern web site and featuring a recording of someone reading the Koran on its soundtrack, the video was originally made in May 2004 shortly after Nick Berg’s death and posted to two file-sharing sites, Soulseek and Kazaa. It all but disappeared until its appearance, over a month later, on www.islamic-minbar.com, a web site in Arabic that has posted communiqués from Islamic radical groups and videos of victims who were beheaded by militants. Soon after it appeared on the Islamic Minbar site, the video was picked up by the Associated Press in Cairo, Reuters News Service and two Middle Eastern television broadcasters. From there, it quickly spread through the media by being picked up by newspapers, radio stations and television news operations. When it became apparent the video was a hoax, the three film-makers were interviewed by the FBI and received fierce criticism in the American media, particularly from the Fox cable news channel who accused them of tastelessness and a lack of patriotism.  Yet while the film itself is unconvincing to the extent that it is worrying that respected news outlets actually accepted it on face value, the film makers provided a defence of the hoax in a press release and the reception of the video provided an auto-critique of the new media landscape:

We produced this video on the same day that the Nick Berg execution video was released. To release it, we simply allowed it to be retrieved from our computers by anyone who searched the Kazaa and Soulseek file sharing networks for words like “execution” or “beheading”. We knew that since the media was seemingly jealously guarding the source video of the Nick Berg execution, people would have no choice but to use those file sharing networks to attempt to find the video for them. Part of the reason we created this video was to explore this phenomenon of how people will use these decentralized networks to bypass the mainstream media and even the mainstream Internet.

(From press release by Vanderford, Martin and Kirchner 2004)

The hypocrisy of the American media’s criticism of the hoax film makers was most evident in the accusations of tastelessness, as the beheading of Pearl and Berg had been showcased in a sensationalist manner in mainstream news outlets, and the Vanderford hoax would have gone unnoticed but for the lurid press coverage it received.  The vitriol aimed at Vanderford and his colleagues also helped deflect attention away from the media’s own naiveté in reporting the hoax as fact without verification. Vanderford clearly states his name and address at the start of the video, something it seems no one deigned to check; a quick search on Google keying in his name would have led to a site set up by the film makers owning up to the hoax.  On its own terms, the hoax is a success because it proved that fiction could masquerade as fact on the Internet convincingly; the hunger for death media to boost ratings in this instance undermined journalistic standards of accountability.  It should also be reiterated that it was not just the Western (predominantly American) media that was duped by the tape; in terms of media freedom the most damaging aspect of the hoax was that the Iraqi government effectively installed by the American led ‘coalition’, used the broadcast of the Vanderford hoax on al-Jazeera as the pretext for banning the channel from Baghdad and suspending it from operating indefinitely. Ultimately that was the one tangible consequence of the Vanderford tape, one he and his collaborators could hardly have foreseen, to be what accidental useful idiots for a repressive and brutally pragmatic regime. 

 

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