The California man identified by the Associated Press as a key figure in the online movie clip that sparked protests across the Middle East has a criminal history of bank fraud and drug convictions, and isn’t allowed to use the Internet without permission.
Federal authorities have determined that Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, was behind the film, “Innocence of the Muslims,” the AP reported yesterday, citing an unidentified U.S. law enforcement official.
Nakoula, who was released from prison in 2010, is barred from using the Internet without his probation officer’s approval, according to terms of his supervised release. Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles, said he couldn’t confirm Nakoula is the same person who identified himself as the director, Sam Bacile, in interviews this week.
The 14-minute trailer, posted on Google Inc. (GOOG)’s YouTube, shows a fictional attack by Muslims on a Christian family, followed by an account of the origins of Islam depicting Muhammad as a womanizer. YouTube blocked access to the clip in Egypt and Libya following attacks on the U.S. missions in those countries. It isn’t clear whether a full-length movie exists.
A four-hour assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi on Sept. 11 killed Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three embassy employees. In Egypt and Iran, demonstrators rallied against the film. Protestors in Yemen tried to storm the U.S. embassy in the capital city of Sana’a.
Details of the movie’s origins remain a mystery. A man calling himself Sam Bacile gave interviews this week to the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal claiming he was the filmmaker. He said he was an Israeli-American real estate developer.
Following press reports that the name was a pseudonym, the AP in a follow-up story traced the mobile-phone number it had for Bacile to Nakoula, a Coptic Christian living in suburban Los Angeles. In an interview, Nakoula told the news agency he managed logistics for the company that made the movie. He said he wasn’t the director, according to the AP.
Nakoula was sentenced to one year in jail in 1997 for intent to manufacture methamphetamine, according to Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley. He was given another year for violating probation in 2002.
Nakoula pleaded guilty to one count of bank fraud and was sentenced to 21 months in prison and ordered to pay $794,700 in restitution, according to the June 24, 2010, sentencing document by U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder in Los Angeles.
Accused of fraudulently opening bank and credit-card accounts with a combination of real and fictitious information, he spent time in federal prison before being released from a halfway house in December 2010, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons. He had been in detention from the time of his arrest in June 2009.
During a five-year probation period, Nakoula is only allowed to use identification with his true legal name; can’t have a device with online access without prior approval; can only use computers, screen or user names, passwords and e-mail accounts that have been approved by his probation officer; and can only use approved computers for his work, according to court records.
James Henderson, the lawyer who represented Nakoula in the federal case, didn’t immediately return a call for comment. Attempts by Bloomberg News to reach Nakoula directly were unsuccessful.
“Innocence of Muslims” was shot in August 2011 at Blue Cloud Movie Ranch in Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles, according to Paul Audley, president of Film LA, which assists movie makers. Permits to make the movie, then called “Desert Warrior,” were taken out by a group called Media for Christ, based in the Los Angeles suburb of Duarte, Audley said. A man named Sam Bossil was identified at the producer.
The film permit was removed from a Los Angeles County online database temporarily due to public-safety concerns raised by the U.S. State Department and the FBI, Ryan J. Alsop, assistant to county Chief Executive Officer William T. Fujioka, said in a statement.
Actors were duped into making a movie that attacked Islam and inflammatory dialogue was dubbed in later, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“The entire cast and crew are extremely upset and feel taken advantage of by the producer,” the Times reported, citing a statement issued on behalf of the crew members. “We are 100 percent not behind this film and were grossly misled about its intent and purpose.”
Calls to the Media for Christ office weren’t returned.
Bacile was a pseudonym, according to Steve Klein, a Southern California insurance salesman and anti-Islamic activist who said he advised the filmmaker on finding actors. “This guy’s terrified,” Klein said in a telephone interview from his office in Hemet this week. “He’s gone underground.”
Klein’s involvement with the picture couldn’t be independently verified by Bloomberg News.
Klein, 62, heads the group Concerned Citizens for the First Amendment, which stages rallies and educational events, contending Islam is a threat to U.S. democracy and freedom.
He said he read the script before the movie was shot and advised the filmmaker to recruit actors through a Hollywood talent agency. Klein said he didn’t know the name of the agency.
The violence in Libya may have been orchestrated by groups tied to al-Qaeda, lawmakers said as U.S. officials began to investigate the incident.
The attack bore the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda operation and may have been carried out by the group’s North Africa affiliate to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., said Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House intelligence committee.
The movie had one theatrical showing at a cinema on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, Klein said.
“I got there about a half hour before the movie started and stayed a half hour after it started and I saw zero -- nada, none, no people -- go inside,” Klein said.