SAN FRANCISCO – An aspiring politician and video game designer who faked his own beheading by Iraqi militants awoke Saturday to learn that television stations around the world were showing his homemade video of the gruesome hoax.
Benjamin Vanderford (search), 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 after being awoken at his San Francisco apartment early Saturday and informed that much of the world was suddenly under the impression he had been decapitated.
Federal Bureau of Investigation agents interviewed Vanderford Saturday morning and an investigation has been opened, said FBI (search) 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," Quy said, adding that it would be up to the U.S. Attorney to determine what, if any, charges are filed.
Shrugging and taking a drink from a diet soda, Vanderford said he originally made the video as a way to draw attention to his campaign for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.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 Saturday after the hoax was discovered, and the organization that claimed to have posted it, the Islamic Global Media Center (search), 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."
The clip aired Saturday on the Arab television before Western news organizations, including The Associated Press and Reuters, published news of the unverified beheading.
On the tape, which carried an Arabic title that translates as "Abu Musab al-Zarqawi Slaughters an American," 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 al-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.
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 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."
He said he spliced the video with images of mutilated bodies taken from a Web site operated by Hamas, a terrorist group responsible for suicide bombings in Israel.
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."
The Web site on which the hoax footage appeared has previously carried numerous seemingly legitimate claims, including an extremist group's admission it conducted the July 30 suicide bombings in Uzbekistan, plus a video showing al-Zarqawi's supporters shooting dead a Turkish contractor.
But many Internet-posted and TV-broadcasted claims are difficult to authenticate, particularly because of doubts over their sources or if those making the claims have any ability to carry them out.
A statement posted on the Internet in early July in the name of an Iraqi guerrilla group, Ansar al-Sunna Army, claimed it had beheaded Lebanese-born U.S. Marines Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun, who had been kidnapped in Iraq. But the group itself posted a statement on its own Web site denying it had killed Hassoun, who is now in the United States.
An al-Qaida-linked group, The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade, this month posted a statement denying a threat issued in its name demanding Italian troops leave Iraq within 15 days. The group said it had never issued such an ultimatum.