A 55-year-old Egypt-born Coptic Christian man living in the Los Angeles area was a key figure behind the anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims,” blamed for sparking riots and protests in the Middle East, law enforcement officials told NBC News Thursday.
Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who is on probation after being convicted of financial crimes, also was twice sentenced to jail after being found guilty of intent to manufacture methamphetamine in the late 1990s, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office said.
Court records show that Nakoula also was convicted on federal fraud charges in Los Angeles in 2010. Among the conditions of his probation, Nakoula was barred from using “any online service at any location” without the prior approval of his probation officer, according to a copy of court records in the case.
Federal law enforcement officials are investigating whether Nakoula violated his probation on federal fraud charges in his efforts to promote the movie, an official has confirmed to NBC News.
A federal law enforcement official told NBC that they believe Nakoula was behind the film, which he produced under a pseudonym.
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 Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya during a terrorist attack. Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed Thursday that Justice Department officials were investigating the deaths, which occurred during an attack on the American mission in Benghazi.
The crude and provocative anti-Islam video, blamed in part for sparking protests against U.S. diplomatic missions, was promoted by another Egyptian-born Coptic Christian named Morris Sadek on his website.
Copts make up a minority in Egypt where they have been victims of discrimination and sometimes attacks by Islamic extremists.
A trailer for the amateurish film, posted on YouTube in July and later reposted after being translated into Arabic, portrays Muhammad, believed by Muslims to be God’s prophet, variously as a womanizer, a homosexual and a child abuser.
The translated clip, shown repeatedly on Egyptian television stations in recent weeks, sparked protests across the Middle East and North Africa and was blamed for inciting an attack in Libya on Tuesday that killed the U.S. Ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans.
U.S. officials are also investigating the possibility that the deadly Libya attack was planned in advance to coincide with the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks on the United States by Islamist terrorists.
The Quran forbids any depiction of Muhammad, and most Muslims regard any attempt to insult him as highly offensive. A Danish newspaper’s 2005 publication of 12 caricatures of the prophet triggered riots in many Muslim countries.
The mysterious origins of the film have been the subject of intense reporting.
The Associated Press was first to report that it had reached the filmmaker who said he was an Israeli-American real estate developer from California who had made the movie by raising $5 million from wealthy Jewish donors. It gradually emerged that the man, who went by “Sam Bacile,” was using an alias. The film, tied to U.S.-based Christians with extreme anti-Islamic views, was produced on a low budget in southern California using actors who were apparently unaware of the film’s ultimate purpose.
Federal court papers show Nakoula’s past aliases have included Nicola Bacily, Erwin Salameh and others.
Some of the information leading to Nakoula came from Morris Sadek, who is also an Egyptian-born American who had promoted the anti-Muslim film on his website. Reporting in The Atlantic also connected the film to Steve Klein, a self-described militant Christian activist in Riverside, Calif., Klein indicated that the film maker contacted him as a consultant because Klein leads anti-Islam protests outside mosques and schools.
TODAY’s Matt Lauer speaks with security analyst Michael Leiter about the likelihood that the attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya was a pre-meditated act by a group of al-Qaida sympathizers rather than a spontaneous uprising over an anti-Muslim Internet video.
The 13-minute English-language trailer for the film was posted on YouTube in July by an account registered to a Sam Bacile. It shows the cast performing a wooden dialogue, with insults cast as revelations about Muhammad dubbed over the top.
Cindy Lee Garcia, of Bakersfield, California, who appears briefly in clips of the film posted online, said she answered a casting call last year to appear in a movie titled “Desert Warrior.”
“It looks so unreal to me, it’s like nothing that we even filmed was there. There was all this weird stuff there,” Garcia told Reuters in a phone interview.
Garcia said the film was shot in the summer of 2011 inside a church near Los Angeles, with actors standing in front of a “green screen,” used to depict background images. About 50 actors were involved, she said.
An expired casting notice at Backstage.com listed a film named “Desert Warrior” that it described as a low-budget “historical Arabian Desert adventure film.” None of the characters were identified in the casting call as Muhammad.
“They told me it was based on what it was like 2,000 years ago at the time of the Lord,” Garcia said. “Like the time Christ was here.”
A source close to the cast and crew of the film told NBC News that “Bacile” misled the actors and production crew.
“The entire crew and cast are extremely upset and feel taken advantage of by the producer,” the source said. “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.”
Source: NBC News