Federal authorities have identified a Coptic Christian in Southern California who is on probation after his conviction for financial crimes as the key figure behind the anti-Muslim film that ignited mob violence against U.S. embassies across the Middle East, a U.S. law enforcement official told the Associated Press on Thursday.
The official said authorities concluded that Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, was behind “Innocence of Muslims,” a film that denigrated Islam and the Prophet Muhammad and sparked protests this week in Egypt, Libya and most recently Yemen. It was not immediately clear whether Nakoula was the target of a criminal investigation or part of the broader investigation into the deaths of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Libya during a terrorist attack.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation, said Nakoula was connected to the persona of Sam Bacile, a man who initially told the AP that he was the film’s writer and director. But Bacile turned out to be a false identity, and the AP traced a cellphone number Bacile used to a Southern California house and interviewed Nakoula.
Bacile initially told AP he was Jewish and Israeli, although Israeli officials said they had no records of such a citizen. Others involved in the film said his statements were contrived, as evidence mounted that the film’s key player was a Coptic Christian with a checkered past.
Egypt’s Coptic Christian populace has long decried what they describe as a history of discrimination and violence from the country’s Muslim majority.
The YouTube account under the username “Sam Bacile” was used to publish excerpts of the provocative movie in July and 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 with AP 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 also was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison and was ordered not to use computers or the Internet for five years without approval from his probation officer.
American actors and actresses who appeared in “Innocence of Muslims” issued a joint statement Wednesday saying they were misled about the project and that some of their dialogue was dubbed crudely into Arabic 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 are not 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.
One of the actresses, Cindy Lee Garcia, told KERO-TV in Bakersfield that the film was originally titled “Desert Warriors” and the script did not contain offensive references to Islam.
“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.
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