California Fraudster Admits Backing Anti-Muslim Film, Denies Posing As Director

on September 12 2012 8:36 PM

A Coptic Christian from California with a record of financial crimes says he helped produce the anti-Muslim film that sparked deadly attacks on U.S. diplomats in Libya and Egypt, the Associated Press reported Wednesday evening.

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, told the AP in an interview outside Los Angeles that he was the manager for the company that produced "Innocence of Muslims," and he provided the first details about the shadowy production group behind the film.

Nakoula said he did not direct the film but knew the self-described filmmaker, "Sam Bacile." But the cellphone number that the AP called Tuesday to reach "Bacile" was traced to the same address near Los Angeles where it 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 in Egypt about their treatment by Muslims.

Nakoula denied posing as Bacile, who supposedly is an Israeli Jew, although the Israelis say they have no record of such a person. 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. Record checks by the AP subsequently found the name 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 persecution by the Muslim 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. He was generally a little shook up concerning this situation."

Nakoula pleaded no contest in 2010 to federal bank fraud charges in California and was ordered to pay more than $790,000 in restitution, the AP reports. 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 posting comments online as recently as Tuesday.

A man calling himself Sam Bacile spoke to the AP on Tuesday, but many questions have been raised about his story.

An anti-Islamic activist and self-described "consultant" on the film, Steve Klein, has worked closely with Coptic groups over the years, according to Jim Horn, a fellow activist. "He's been helping them to stand up for themselves against Islamic terror in Egypt. That's what he does," Horn told the Guardian.

Klein, who claims to have led a "hunter-killer team" in Vietnam, helped found a conservative Christian group and calls himself a counter-terrorism expert.

Details of the film -- supposedly a $5 million production funded by Jewish donors -- remained as murky as those of its makers. The one undisputed fact was that in July a video in English was posted on YouTube under the pseudonym "Sam Bacile."

The 13-minute video -- purportedly a trailer for a full-length film -- comprised clumsily overdubbed and haphazardly-edited scenes. "Among the overdubbed words is 'Mohammed,' suggesting that the footage was taken from a film about something else entirely. The footage also suggests multiple video sources - there are obvious and jarring discrepancies among actors and locations, " wrote Buzzfeed's Rosie Gray.

Klein, who said he served as a script consultant, told the Los Angeles Times that he and the producers originally called the movie "Innocence of Bin Laden" in hopes of drawing out underground Islamic extremists in the Los Angeles area.

"The movie was only supposed to show in Hollywood," said Klein, who described himself as "an unsophisticated James Bond."

He added, "We passed out fliers at mosques around California where we knew there was a small percentage of terrorists. And the idea was to locate ... those folks who believed Osama bin Laden was a great guy and to try to get them to come to the movie."

Klein said the movie was filmed this year, but he would not reveal the shooting location or the names of the producers. "Innocence of Bin Laden" premiered at the Vine Theater in Hollywood in late June, according to three people with knowledge of the event. One said that the movie was notable for its terrible acting but did not seem anti-Muslim.

Less than two weeks later, a 14-minute trailer for the movie -- now called "Innocence of Muslims" and with new dialogue -- was posted on YouTube by a user identifying himself as Sam Bacile. 

A crew member told the Times the cast and crew were told the film was to be a war drama called "Desert Warrior." In his email interview with the Times, the crew member, who asked not to be identified, said the dialogue in the trailer that makes specific attacks against Islam was re-recorded after the actors left the set.

"The original actors said one word, and then the producer and editing team (whom I don't know) dubbed," he wrote. "It's unmistakable that most dubbed portions are a different voice than the original actor."