- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 7, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — An aspiring politician and video game designer who faked his own beheading by Iraqi militants set off a short-lived media frenzy yesterday after outlets 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,” Mr. Vanderford said after being awoken at his San Francisco apartment early yesterday and informed that much of the world was suddenly under the impression he had been decapitated.

Federal Bureau of Investigation agents interviewed Mr. Vanderford yesterday and an investigation has been opened, said FBI spokeswoman LaRae Quy. She said the agency initially became involved while trying to verify whether anyone had, in fact, been beheaded.

“We are collecting all the facts at this point in this process and we will pursue any and all legal avenues,” said Miss Quy, adding that it would be up to the U.S. attorney to determine what, if any, charges are filed.

Shrugging and taking a sip of a diet soda, Mr. Vanderford said he originally made the video as a way to draw attention to his campaign for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He filmed the footage at a friend’s house, using fake blood.

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 for months without drawing attention, it spread quickly after it was posted on a militant Islamic Web site that has previously carried claims of violent acts that eventually were verified.

The video was taken off the site yesterday after the hoax was discovered, and the organization that claimed to have posted it, the Islamic Global Media Center, said in a statement on the Web site that it had “deleted the fake tape and there are others which we are now making sure if they are true or not before hosting it.”

On the tape, which carried an Arabic title that translates as “Abu Musab al-Zarqawi Slaughters an American,” Mr. Vanderford sits on a chair, his hands behind his back, rocking back and forth.

“We need to leave this country alone. We need to stop this occupation,” he said on the video, adding that he had been offered for exchange with prisoners in Iraq. “Everyone’s going to be killed this way.”

The tape then shows a hand with a knife cutting at the motionless man’s neck, but it did not show any militants.

Abu Musab Zarqawi is a Jordanian militant whose group has claimed responsibility for numerous deadly attacks across Iraq, including the beheadings of U.S. businessman Nicholas Berg, South Korean translator Kim Sun-il and Bulgarian truck driver Georgi Lazov.

Mr. Vanderford said the file-sharing network provided a free and convenient distribution channel for the clip. His only challenge was making it look authentic.

“We had to make it more lower quality to make it more realistic,” said Mr. Vanderford, who works at a bank when he’s not performing in a rap group and designing video games. “That was another experiment that was part of this, to see how quickly that system will spread news.”

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