Nicholas Berg had a distinctive strategy for soliciting work for his communications tower company: conduct free spot inspections, then offer to fix any problems. Where others went sightseeing, he went climbing and inspecting. Where others wrote postcards, he inventoried towers, from Pennsylvania to Texas to Africa.
By late last year, Berg, 26, had turned his sights on Iraq. An adventurous entrepreneur and religious Jew, Berg had a passionate belief in capitalism’s power to transform poor nations. He really believed, friends and relatives said, that he could help rebuild that war-shattered country one radio tower at a time.
It was a vision that almost immediately aroused suspicions. In January, the Iraqi police, thinking Berg might be an Iranian spy, briefly detained him while he was touring towers near the south-central city of Diwaniya.
“Isn’t this starting to read like a mystery novel,” he wrote to his friends and family after his Diwaniya adventure.
Two months later, Berg would not be so lucky. Late on the evening of March 24, the Iraqi police in Mosul, apparently thinking Berg a spy, a smuggler or a terrorist, detained him while he was traveling to visit two business contacts. This time, he remained in an Iraqi jail for 13 days while the FBI checked and rechecked his story. When he was released on April 6 – one day after his family filed suit demanding his release – Iraq was being swept by insurgent violence aimed at foreign contractors.
On April 10, the day Berg planned to return home, he disappeared. On May 8, U.S. troops found his body on a road near Baghdad. The Central Intelligence Agency has said that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant with ties to Al Qaeda, is probably the man seen beheading Berg in a ghastly tape. Berg’s detention in Mosul has raised sharp questions about whether American officials did enough to get him released as quickly as they could have. Berg’s family contends he had planned to leave Iraq on March 30, which might have enabled him to avoid the anti-Western kidnappings and killings of April.
But the many unexplained details of Berg’s final days, combined with the uncommon details of his unconventional life, have also prompted furious speculation on the Internet and talk radio about Berg himself. Some have argued that he was a spy for Israel or the CIA, or that his murder was staged by pro-American forces to arouse anger toward Iraqi insurgents. Some have asserted that he had ties to the very Qaeda militants who are thought to be responsible for his death.
He was, after all, traveling alone, without a translator or a bodyguard in a lawless land whose language he barely understood. He carried books about Iran and kept a detailed inventory of Iraqi communications towers. He was shown in the beheading video wearing orange clothing, which, to some, looked like the jumpsuits worn by prisoners held by the U.S. military at Guantánamo Bay. Adding to the mystery, neither the Iraqi police nor the U.S. military have taken responsibility for Berg’s detention. The Iraqi police contend they promptly turned Berg over to the U.S. military, an assertion Berg later confirmed in e-mail home. But American officials assert he remained in the custody of Iraqi police for the entire 13 days.
American law enforcement and intelligence officials have strenuously rejected the conspiracy theories. They are convinced, they said, that Berg was just a freelancing businessman with a high tolerance for risk, whose naïveté and idealism blinded him to Iraq’s treacherous corners.
“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” an FBI official said.
To Berg’s friends and family, there was nothing odd or mysterious about his wanderings in Iraq. He was just being Nick: a bright, fearless, iconoclastic man who saw himself as a modern-day Prometheus, bringing progress to a downtrodden nation. And like Prometheus, his friends say, he was punished for his good deeds.
“I’m sure that throughout the entire ordeal, he felt no fear,” a close friend, Luke Lorenz, said of Berg’s final hours. “I doubt that he thought they would hurt him. He really believed in the goodness of people. That if they took the time, they’d like him.
“When I see him sitting there in the video, it doesn’t seem any different than when I’d see him anywhere else,” Lorenz, 28, said. “Taking it all in.”
Berg, the youngest of three children, grew up in a comfortable community of split-level houses in West Whiteland Township, a suburb of Philadelphia.
He attended Cornell University, distinguishing himself in engineering courses, a faculty adviser said. But his defining semester came in a small Ugandan village, where he spent the spring of 1998 in an exchange program.
There he was exposed to poverty he had never imagined, friends said. He turned his inventiveness to good use, fashioning a brick-making machine to help villagers stabilize mud huts. “He was shaken by his experience,” a friend, James Wakefield, 52, said. “He had nothing but a pair of pants, a shirt and boots when he came home. He gave away his clothing.”
He left Cornell at the end of 1998, and went searching for ways to transform his Africa ideas into a practical plan, studying at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania before transferring to the University of Oklahoma in Norman in the fall of 1999.
In Oklahoma, Berg’s e-mail password was obtained by an associate of Zacarias Moussaoui, who is awaiting trial on charges of assisting the Sept. 11 plot. Moussaoui attended flight school in Norman in 2001, but it is not clear that he ever met Berg.
FBI agents interviewed Berg in 2002 and cleared him of having links to terrorist groups, officials said.
In Oklahoma, Berg also began learning about communications towers. He had loved climbing as a youth, building a tree house in his backyard and becoming an avid rock climber in college. In 2000, he quit his studies in Norman and for more than a year wandered across Oklahoma and Texas working as a freelance contractor replacing lights, painting girders and fixing cables hundreds of feet above the ground.
By 2002, he had returned to the Philadelphia area and formed his own tower company, Prometheus Methods Tower Service, using the motto “Man is more than fire tamed.” Through cold calls and free spot inspections, he had built a client list of 50 companies by 2003. As his business grew, Berg began plotting ways to resume his work in developing nations. With the help of the American Jewish World Service, he visited Kenya for two weeks in March 2003, working on water projects and pledging to return in the summer of 2004.
But it was Iraq that loomed large in Berg’s imagination. He defended the invasion, arguing it had ousted a brutal dictator, and said Americans had a moral obligation to help rebuild the shattered country.
In part, friends said, he saw a business opportunity.
Though his parents and friends warned him of the dangers of Iraq, they were not surprised when he decided to go. “Nick was real good at recognizing physical danger, it’s part of the job,” Scott Hollinger, the foreman for Prometheus Methods, said. “He didn’t do too well at recognizing human danger because he never thought anybody was going to hurt him.”
In late December, he flew to Israel and crossed by land into Iraq via Jordan. Berg came home in February, but returned to Iraq in March, expressing confidence about getting work.
On March 24, while traveling to meet some business contacts, Berg was stopped at an Iraqi checkpoint near Mosul. “We were afraid for his life,” the police chief, Muhammad Barhawi, said in an interview. “And we had suspicions about him. So we turned him over to the coalition forces.”
But American officials contend Berg remained in Iraqi police custody the entire time he was detained.
During his detention, Berg was interviewed three times by FBI officers who asked whether he had ever built a pipe bomb, what he was doing in Iraq, why he had gone to Iran, Berg told friends and his family later. He had never been to Iran, but was carrying a book about Iran and some Farsi language materials, Berg wrote.
Berg’s parents, who had expected their son to return home on March 30, became frantic. They contacted the State Department and were interviewed by the FBI, which corroborated Berg’s statements in Iraq. The FBI then recommended that Berg be released, FBI officials said.
Berg sent e-mails saying he planned to catch a flight home from Jordan on April 10. He disappeared soon after that.