- Special to The Washington Times - Monday, October 8, 2012

The YouTube video that spawned a wave of violent protests across the Islamic world might be more than a crude exercise in anti-Muslim propaganda.

Walid Shoebat, a Middle East pundit and reformed terrorist, says there is reason to believe that the “Innocence of Muslims” video was a hoax designed to spark the huge outpouring of Muslim rage that it did.

Shoebat, who claims he is related to a man who was involved in criminal activities with one of the video’s producers, knows something about terrorists. He says he used to be one — a radicalized Muslim who, in his own words, was “willing to die for the cause of jihad.” He has since converted to Christianity and lives in the United States, where he writes and lectures widely on the Islamic terror threat.

Shoebat grew up in Beit Sahour near Bethlehem in the Palestinian Arab territories. So did Eiad Salameh, a man Shoebat says is his cousin. Shoebat says Salameh was a partner in crime with Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, producer of the YouTube video, which has acted as a fuse igniting an explosion of Muslim anger directed toward the West.

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula was first identified as Sam Bacile, the name he used to upload the video to YouTube. To the Wall Street Journal on Sept. 12, he claimed to be a real estate developer, an Israeli Jew who had raised “$5 million from 100 Jewish donors.” The Associated Press quickly reported he was not an Israeli, but in fact Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (that, too, may turn out to be a pseudonym, as he told a judge Sept. 27 that his real name was Mark Basseley Youssef). Taken in for questioning by L.A. sheriff’s deputies on Sept. 15, he at first denied any involvement with the film, but then said he was the writer and director. And he was not Jewish but an Egyptian Coptic Christian.

The media have settled on this narrative. Nakoula’s motive is assumed to be hatred of Islam for oppression of his people. But the only thing that can be said with certainty about Nakoula is that he is a convicted felon with a rap sheet. He was arrested in California in June 2009 on bank fraud charges, and accused by federal authorities with stealing nearly $800,000 as part of a check-kiting ring.

Nakoula had assumed numerous aliases to conduct his illegal activities, prosecutors say. According to a criminal complaint filed that month, he went by the names Thomas J. Tanas, Ahmad Hamdy, Erwin Salameh and Nicola Bacily. He was convicted and sentenced to 21 months in prison, a year short of what federal prosecutors wanted. Even that sentence he did not serve in full because he cooperated with authorities in identifying the man he claimed was the criminal group’s ringleader: Eiad Salameh.

Prosecutors say Nakoula and Salameh were partners in crime at least since 2008, although there is indirect evidence the two were in contact as far back as 2000. The June 2009 criminal complaint states, “Video surveillance photos for the Salameh WAMU [Washington Mutual Bank] account appear to depict Nakoula conducting the following transactions: i. depositing $1,950.00 into the Salameh WAMU account at the WAMU Bank branch located at 8901 Valley View Street, Buena Park, California 90620 on September 10, 2008.”

The connection between Salameh and Nakoula is key to understanding the very real possibility that “Innocence of Muslims” was a Muslim project. Salameh, the Smoking Gun website reported Sept. 14, is “a notorious fraudster who has been tracked for more than a decade by state and federal investigators.”

The Justice Department apparently knew Salameh was a bad actor. In arguing for leniency for Nakoula in 2010, Justice Department lawyers said in court documents, “We all know what’s gonna happen. Salamay [Salameh] is gonna get arrested someday and based on the debriefing information turned over, he is gonna enter a guilty plea.” The Los Angeles Police Department had been investigating Salameh until 2008 but handed over the investigation to the FBI’s Santa Ana, Calif., office when it was informed of an ongoing federal investigation. Salameh was eventually arrested in Canada for presenting a stolen passport and deported to the Palestinian territories.

“He hates Copts with a passion and he would never deal with Copts, and here he’s dealing with Copts,” Shoebat said of his cousin’s involvement with Nakoula. “All my life he talked about how he hated the Copts. What was he doing in bed with a Copt? … It just doesn’t add up.”

The converse is also true. Why would an Islam-hating Copt (Nakoula said “Islam is a cancer” in his interview with the Wall Street Journal) partner with a Copt-hating Muslim?

Also strange, Shoebat says, is that no one has located Nakoula’s family, which is said to hail from the Al-Bahira governorate in Egypt. “In the Middle East, no one can hide. You are known by your clan,” Shoebat says. “Why can’t Egypt produce the family of this man if he’s indeed from Al-Bahira in Egypt? I should be able to plug in the name and find the Bahira family — nothing.”

However, there is a Nakoula clan in Beit Sahour, a Palestinian Arab town east of Bethlehem, where Salameh and Shoebat once lived. There is also a Tanas clan. One of Nakoula’s other names given in the June 2009 court complaint was Thomas J. Tanas.

Another pseudonym Nakoula went by was Ahmad Hamdy. Eric Shen, the U.S. postal inspector who authored the June 2009 court complaint against Nakoula, wrote, “Specifically, I identified a Capital One credit card issued in 2005 in the name ‘Ahmad Hamdy,’ a Chase credit card issued in 2007 in the names ‘PJ Tobacco’ and ‘Ahmed Hamdy,’ and two B of A credit cards both issued in 2005 in the name ‘Ahemd [sic] Hamdy.’ ”

Is Nakoula really Ahmad Hamdy? It may only be one of many aliases, but in peeling back the onion, it has turned out so far to be Nakoula’s first known alias. It is also, importantly, a wholly Muslim name. It begs the question: Is Nakoula really a Muslim? Shoebat says that people in the Coptic community remember a convert by the name of Ahmad Hamdy who showed up in 2002 claiming he converted after hearing the sermons of the Rev. Zakaria Botros, a well-known Coptic priest from Egypt.

“Is it possible that this man Ahmed Hamdy went into the Coptic community, pretended to be interested in Christianity, and falsely converted?” Shoebat asked. Even assuming this to be true, what motive would a Muslim have to pretend to become a Copt?

Regarding the YouTube video, Shoebat says, “There is a probability, a very high probability, that this was a terrorist set-up. We can’t be 100 percent sure but we can say there is reasonable doubt for the narrative we hear in the media.” In other words, the video may have been a kind of Islamist agitprop designed to incite Muslim anger against the West.

It would not be the first time. There is a history in the Muslim world of manufacturing false images to stir up Muslim outrage. For example, there is the case of Mohammed al-Dura, a Palestinian Arab boy filmed as he was apparently shot by Israeli soldiers. The film became a rallying cry against Israel but later proved to be a hoax. It is only the most prominent example of what has become a small industry known as Pallywood in which phony atrocities are enacted to put Israel in the dock.

The question may be asked, would Muslims go so far as to create images insulting to Mohammed? The events surrounding the dissemination of the infamous cartoons published in a Danish newspaper in September 2005 suggest that they would. Those cartoons went unnoticed until Islamic groups in Denmark circulated a dossier in the Muslim world containing the 12 offending cartoons. Importantly, the dossier included three additional cartoons which were, in fact, far more insulting. One, a picture of a French pig-squealing contestant that the dossier represented as standing for Mohammed, had nothing to do with the prophet when it was originally published. The dossier sparked protests and violence across the Middle East, resulting in a 100 deaths and the bombing of the Danish Embassy in Pakistan.

A clue to the mystery might be sitting in plain view on YouTube. The account of Sam Bacile, the pseudonym Nakoula used to post “Innocence of Muslims,” lists only one “favorite”: a video on Al Nour Party TV (the link was removed Oct. 4, itself an interesting development). The Al Nour Party is a Salafi party in Egypt with an ultra-conservative Islamist ideology that advocates implementing strict Shariah law. Why would Nakoula, who claims to be a Copt who despises Islam to the point where he makes a film deriding Mohammed, list as his only YouTube “favorite” a video of an ultrareligious Islamist party that seeks Shariah law? The video features Al Nour Party spokesman Nader Bakkar, one of the instigators of recent protests in front of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. According to Y3rab News Agency, on Sept. 10:

“Nour Party announced in a statement on the official Facebook page of the party support for participation in the vigil held in front of the U.S. Embassy on the fifth evening (Tuesday) to condemn the film for offending the Prophet (peace be upon him) on American television. The Engineer Jalal, once Secretary-General of the party, said that a number of party leaders are taking part in the vigil, led by Dr. Ahmed Khalil and Nader Bakkar [emphasis added], in addition to members of the party from the various provinces.”

What motive would Mr. Bakkar have for using the YouTube video as an excuse for promoting demonstrations against the United States? The answer may be found in the failure of Muslim nations to persuade the Danish government to prosecute the cartoonists. Eleven ambassadors from Muslim countries had requested to meet with the Danish prime minister shortly after the cartoons were published. They were rebuffed. It is part of a larger picture of the Muslim effort to pass anti-blasphemy laws in the West.

The Nour Party said the demonstrations were in support of Wisam Abdul Waris of “Dar Al-Hekma” (“House of Wisdom”), an Egyptian television show. Mr. Bakkar joined a coalition with Mr. Waris to make it illegal in Egypt and around the world to blaspheme Islam. As Mr. Waris said, “The Voice of Wisdom Coalition (I’itilaf Sawt al-Hekma) … will hold accountable everyone who insults Islam locally and internationally.”

The YouTube video controversy has sparked an intense debate on free speech in the United States. Some say the U.S. should censor such displays of religious insensitivity. Others argue the country should support the right to express even hateful speech. The Obama administration has been on the defensive, decrying the video as “disgusting,” “reprehensible” and “offensive,” while repeatedly emphasizing that the U.S. government had nothing to do with it.

But if Shoebat is right, and the YouTube video was a project of Islamic extremists, what we are dealing with is not an issue of free speech but rather of Muslim extremists who will stop at nothing to achieve their ends, including blaspheming the prophet Mohammed themselves.

The evidence is circumstantial, yet it makes more sense than the current narrative the media, the White House and Muslim countries are pushing, which is based on the word of a man whose story keeps changing, who has numerous aliases, who at first tried to pass the video off as a Jewish plot, and who reportedly deceived even the actors on the video as to the subject of the film, and who is a known felon convicted of bank fraud and identity theft.

It’s time for the real investigation to begin.

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