WASHINGTON: Federal authorities have identified a Californian man once convicted of financial crimes as the key figure behind the anti-Muslim film that ignited mob violence against U.S. embassies across the Mideast, a law enforcement official said Thursday.
Attorney General Eric Holder said that Justice Department officials had opened a criminal investigation into the deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other diplomats killed during an attack on the American mission in Benghazi.
It was not immediately clear whether authorities were focusing on the California filmmaker as part of that probe.
A federal law enforcement official said Thursday that Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, was the man behind “innocence of Muslims,” a film denigrating Islam and the Prophet Mohammad that sparked protests earlier in the week in Egypt and Libya and now in Yemen.
U.S. authorities are investigating whether the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya came during a terrorist attack.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation, said Nakoula was connected to the persona of Sam Bacile, a figure who initially claimed to be the writer and director of the film.
But Bacile quickly turned out to a false identity and the Associated Press traced a cellphone number used by Bacile to a southern California house where Nakoula was found.
Bacile initially claimed a Jewish and Israeli background. But others involved in the film said his statements were contrived as evidence mounted that the film’s key player was a southern Californian Coptic Christian with a checkered past.
Nakoula told the Associated Press in an interview outside Los Angeles Wednesday that he managed logistics for the company that produced “innocence of Muslims,” which mocked Muslims and the Prophet Mohammad.
Nakoula denied that he was Bacile and insisted he did not direct the film, though he said he knew Bacile.
But federal court papers filed against Nakoula in a 2010 criminal prosecution said that he had used numerous aliases in the past.
Among the fake names, the documents said, were Nicola Bacily, Robert Bacily and Erwin Salameh, all similar to the Sam Bacile persona. Other aliases described in the documents included Ahmad Hamdy, Kritbag Difrat and PJ Tobacco.
During a conversation outside his home, Nakoula offered his driver’s license to show his identity but kept his thumb over his middle name, Basseley. Records checks by the AP subsequently found that middle name as well as other connections to the Bacile persona.
The AP located Bacile after obtaining his cellphone number from Morris Sadek, a conservative Coptic Christian in the U.S. who had promoted the anti-Muslim film recently on his website.
Egypt’s Christian Coptic populace has long decried what they describe as a history of discrimination and occasional violence from the country’s Arab majority.
The YouTube account under the username “Sam Bacile,” which was used to publish excerpts of the provocative movie in July, was used to post comments online as recently as Tuesday, including this defense of the film written in Arabic: “It is a 100 percent American movie, you cows.”
Nakoula, who talked guardedly about his role, pleaded no contest in 2010 to federal bank fraud charges in California and was ordered to pay more than $790,000 in restitution.
He was also sentenced to 21 months in federal prison and ordered not to use computers or the Internet for five years, except for with the approval from his probation officer.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Leigh Williams said Nakoula set up fraudulent bank accounts using stolen identities and Social Security numbers; then, checks from those accounts would be deposited into other bogus accounts from which Nakoula would withdraw money at ATM machines.
It was “basically a check-kiting scheme,” the prosecutor told the AP.
“You try to get the money out of the bank before the bank realizes they are drawn from a fraudulent account. There basically is no money.”
Prior to his bank fraud conviction, Nakoula struggled with a series of financial problems in recent years, according to California state tax and bankruptcy records.
In June 2006, a $191,000 tax lien was filed against him in the Los Angeles County Recorder of Deeds office. In 1997, a $106,000 lien was filed against him in Orange County.
American actors and actresses who appeared in “innocence of Muslims” issued a statement Wednesday saying they were misled about the project and alleged that some of their dialogue was crudely dubbed during postproduction.
In the English-language version of the trailer, direct references to Muhammad appear to be the result of postproduction changes to the movie.
Either actors aren’t seen when the name “Mohammad” is spoken in the overdubbed sound, or they appear to be mouthing something else as the name of the prophet is spoken.
“The entire cast and crew are extremely upset and feel taken advantage of by the producer,” said the statement, obtained by the Los Angeles Times. “We are 100 percent not behind this film and were grossly misled about its intent and purpose. We are shocked by the drastic rewrites of the script and lies that were told to all involved. We are deeply saddened by the tragedies that have occurred.”
One of the actresses, Cindy Lee Garcia, told KERO-TV in Bakersfield that the film was originally titled “Desert Warriors” and that the script did not contain offensive references to Islam.
She wants her name cleared.
“When I found out this movie had caused all this havoc, I called Sam and asked him why, what happened, why did he do this? I said, ‘Why did you do this to us, to me and to us?’ And he said, ‘Tell the world that it wasn’t you that did it, it was me, the one who wrote the script, because I’m tired of the radical Muslims running around killing everyone,’” she said.
Garcia said the director, who identified himself as Bacile, told her then that he was Egyptian.
The person who identified himself as Bacile and described himself as the film’s writer and director told the AP Tuesday that he had gone into hiding.
But doubts rose about the man’s identity amid a flurry of false claims about his background and role in the purported film.
Bacile told the AP he was an Israeli-born, 56-year-old Jewish writer and director. But a Christian activist involved in the film project, Steve Klein, told the AP Wednesday that Bacile was a pseudonym and that he was Christian.
Klein had told the AP Tuesday that the filmmaker was an Israeli Jew who was concerned for family members who live in Egypt.
Officials in Israel said there was no record of Bacile as an Israeli citizen.
When the AP initially left a message for Bacile, Klein contacted the AP from another number to confirm the interview request was legitimate; then Bacile called back from his own cellphone.
Klein said he didn’t know the real name of the man he called “Sam,” who came to him for advice on First Amendment issues.
About 15 key players from the Middle East – people from Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran, and a couple of Coptic Christians from Egypt - worked on the film, Klein said.
“Most of them won’t tell me their real names because they’re terrified,” he said. “He was really scared and now he’s so nervous. He’s turned off his phone.”
An official of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Los Angeles said in a statement Thursday that the church’s adherents had no involvement in the “inflammatory movie about the prophet of Islam.”
An official identified as HG Bishop Serapion, of the Coptic Orthodox of Los Angeles, said that “the producers of this movie should be responsible for their actions. The name of our blessed parishioners should not be associated with the efforts of individuals who have ulterior motives.”