Source: The Toronto Star
FBI investigating gruesome hoax, a 55-second clip on Web
Would-be politician's stunt fuels world-wide media frenzy
SAN FRANCISCO—An aspiring politician, video game designer and bank employee who faked his own beheading by Iraqi militants set off a short-lived frenzy yesterday after media around the world began showing his homemade video of the gruesome hoax.
Benjamin Vanderford, 22, said he posted the 55-second clip, which shows a knife sawing against his neck, on an online file-sharing network in May. It circulated in cyberspace before crossing over to major media, airing on Arab television.
"It was part of a stunt, but no one noticed it up until now," Vanderford told The Associated Press yesterday after being told that much of the world was under the impression he had been decapitated.
The video, which appeared on a website used by Islamic militants, showed a man who identified himself as Vanderford appealing to the United States to leave Iraq. The Web format was that used by Al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and was introduced by a headline that said it showed Zarqawi killing an American.
"If we don't (leave Iraq), everyone is gonna be killed in this way ... I have been offered for exchange for prisoners here in Iraq," the terrified-looking man said, rocking back and forth in his chair, his hands tied behind his back.
The video showed a hand with a large knife apparently slicing through the neck of a limp body.
Vanderford filmed the footage in a friend's garage, using fake blood. Mutilated bodies and sound effects were edited in from photos on websites and the video was purposefully blurred to make it seem even more amateur, he said.
"We had to make it more lower quality to make it more realistic," said Vanderford, who works at a bank when he's not performing in a rap group and designing video games.
FBI agents interviewed Vanderford yesterday and an investigation has been opened, said FBI spokesperson LaRay Quy.
She said it would be up to the U.S. Attorney to determine what, if any, charges are filed.
Vanderford said he originally made the video as a way to draw attention to his campaign for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
When his political aspirations waned, he decided to distribute the footage on Kazaa, which is used to trade millions of audio, video and software files daily, "to just make a statement on these type of videos and how easily they can be faked."
Although the video went three months without drawing attention, it spread quickly after it was posted on a militant Islamic website that has previously carried claims of violent acts that eventually were verified.
The clip aired yesterday on Arab television before Western news organizations, including The Associated Press and Reuters, published news of the unverified beheading.
Vanderford said he was surprised at how long it took.
"It is unfortunate that it had to be the type of video that was offensive and shocking, but it was necessary to see how quickly this kind of thing would spread," he said.
Vanderford, who opposes the U.S.-led war in Iraq, said he understood if relatives of those killed there thought his stunt was misguided, but he offered no apologies for the hoax.
"I see how it could be considered disrespectful. But I think people, if they look at it, will understand two other big issues it brings up," he said. "A small group of disgruntled people in Iraq or Saudi Arabia could just get more attention just by easily releasing something like I did on the Internet."
Scores of hostages from two dozen countries have been seized in Iraq over the last four months. Most have been freed but at least 10 have been killed, and at least 20 are still being held in Iraq.
Vanderford expressed the hope that his stunt would not affect his bank job.