LOS ANGELES » The search for those behind the provocative, anti-Muslim film implicated in violent protests in Egypt and Libya led Wednesday to a California Coptic Christian convicted of financial crimes who acknowledged his role in managing and providing logistics for the production.
Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, told The Associated Press in an interview outside Los Angeles that he helped with logistics for the filming of "Innocence of Muslims," which mocked Muslims and the prophet Muhammad and may have caused inflamed mobs that attacked U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya. He provided the first details about a shadowy production group behind the film.
Nakoula denied he directed the film and said he knew the self-described filmmaker, Sam Bacile. But the cell phone number that AP contacted Tuesday to reach the filmmaker who identified himself as Sam Bacile traced to the same address near Los Angeles where AP found Nakoula. Federal court papers said Nakoula’s aliases included Nicola Bacily, Erwin Salameh and others.
Nakoula told the AP that he was a Coptic Christian and said the film’s director supported the concerns of Christian Copts about their treatment by Muslims.
Nakoula denied he had posed as Bacile. During a conversation outside his home, he 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 it and other connections to the Bacile persona.
The AP located Bacile after obtaining his cell phone number from Morris Sadek, a conservative Coptic Christian in the U.S. who had promoted the anti-Muslim film in recent days on his website. Egypt’s Christian Coptic population has long decried what they describe as a history of discrimination and occasional violence from the country’s Arab majority.
Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Fla., who burned Qurans on the ninth anniversary of 9/11, said he spoke with the movie’s director on the phone Wednesday and prayed for him. He said he has not met the filmmaker in person, but the man contacted him a few weeks ago about promoting the movie.
"I have not met him. Sam Bacile, that is not his real name," Jones said. "I just talked to him on the phone. He is definitely in hiding and does not reveal his identity. He was quite honestly fairly shook up concerning the events and what is happening. A lot of people are not supporting him."
The film was implicated in protests that resulted in the burning of the U.S. consulate Tuesday in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
Libyan officials said Wednesday that Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other embassy employees were killed during the mob violence, but U.S. officials now say they are investigating whether the assault was a planned terrorist strike linked to Tuesday’s 11-year anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.
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 without approval from his probation officer.
The YouTube account, "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."
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."
The actors in the film issued a joint statement Wednesday saying they were misled about the project and said some of their dialogue was crudely dubbed during post-production.
In the English language version of the trailer, direct references to Muhammad appear to be the result of post-production changes to the movie. Either actors aren’t seen when the name "Muhammad" 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."
The person who identified himself as Bacile and described himself as the film’s writer and director told the AP on 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 AP on Wednesday that Bacile was a pseudonym and that he was Christian.
Klein had told the AP on 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 cell phone.
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 – from Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, Iran and a couple Coptic Christians from Egypt – worked on the film, Klein said.
"Most of them won’t tell me their real names because they’re terrified," Klein said. "He was really scared and now he’s so nervous. He’s turned off his phone."
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, said Klein is a former Marine and longtime religious-right activist who has helped train paramilitary militias at a California church. It described Klein as founder of Courageous Christians United, which conducts protests outside abortion clinics, Mormon temples and mosques.
It quoted Klein as saying he believes that California is riddled with Muslim Brotherhood sleeper cells "who are awaiting the trigger date and will begin randomly killing as many of us as they can."
In his brief interview with the AP, Bacile defiantly called Islam a cancer and said he intended the film to be a provocative political statement condemning the religion.
But several key facts Bacile provided proved false or questionable. Bacile told AP he was 56 but identified himself on his YouTube profile as 74. Bacile said he is a real estate developer, but Bacile does not appear in searches of California state licenses, including the Department of Real Estate.
Hollywood and California film industry groups and permit agencies said they had no records of the project under the name "Innocence of Muslims," but a Los Angeles film permit agency later found a record of a movie filmed in Los Angeles last year under the working title "Desert Warriors."
A man who answered a phone listed for the Vine Theater, a faded Hollywood movie house, confirmed that the film had run for a least a day, and possibly longer, several months ago, arranged by a customer known as "Sam."
Google Inc., which owns YouTube, pulled down the video Wednesday in Egypt, citing a legal complaint. It was still accessible in the U.S. and other countries.
Klein told the AP that he vowed to help make the movie but warned the filmmaker that "you’re going to be the next Theo van Gogh." Van Gogh was a Dutch filmmaker killed by a Muslim extremist in 2004 after making a film that was perceived as insulting to Islam.
"We went into this knowing this was probably going to happen," Klein said.