NEW YORK (JTA) — He’s not a Jew.
That’s the consensus about the man behind the anti-Islam film "Innocence of Muslims," which has fueled attacks on U.S. diplomatic installations in throughout the Middle East. A law enforcement source has confirmed that the key figure behind an Egyptian Christian rather than an Israeli Jew, as the film’s producer had initially claimed in interviews.
The Associated Press on Wednesday tracked down an Egyptian Coptic Christian living in Southern California who admitted to involvement with the film’s logistics, and whose middle name and a known alias closely resemble the fake name — Sam Bacile — used by the filmmaker. A federal law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the AP on Thursday that authorities had concluded that the 55-year-old Egyptian man, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, was the key figure behind the film.
A 14-minute trailer for the crudely produced film ridiculing Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and posted to YouTube has been cited as the reason for the outbreak of violence at U.S. diplomatic posts in the Middle East.
On Tuesday night, heavily armed men stormed the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, killing the country’s American ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and three members of his staff. The deadly attack followed angry protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, where rioters breached the compound’s walls and destroyed its American flag.
On Thursday, protesters stormed the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a. There have been more anti-American demonstrations in Cairo and other capitals of Muslim countries.
In the wake of the initial violence, two media outlets interviewed a California man who gave his name as Sam Bacile and reportedly had produced, directed and written "Innocence of Muslims." The man said he was an Israeli-American real estate developer hoping to help Israel with the film, which he said was financed with $5 million by 100 Jewish donors.
While media outlets, including JTA, widely repeated his claims, they quickly came under scrutiny. There appears to have been no such person by that name involved in film or real estate, nor was that name known in California’s Jewish and Israeli communities. A high-ranking Israeli official in Los Angeles told JTA on Wednesday that extensive inquiries among Hollywood insiders and members of the local Israeli community failed to turn up a single person who knew a Sam Bacile.
A self-described Christian activist from Southern California who was a consultant to the film told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that Bacile was a pseudonym and he was not Israeli, and likely not Jewish. The consultant, Steve Klein, who has a history of anti-Islam activism, said that those behind the film were largely Evangelical Christians and included some Copts.
Members of the film’s cast, who said they were misled about its true message, said the film’s producer was Egyptian.
The Associated Press located Nakoula, who said that he had handled logistics for the company that produced the film.
While Nakoula denied being Sam Bacile, the AP traced the cell phone it had used to contact the filmmaker to Nakoula’s address. The wire service said that when Nakoula showed a reporter his driver’s license, he had kept his thumb over his middle name, which resembles the filmmaker’s alias.
In 2010, Nakoula pleaded no contest to federal bank fraud charges and was ordered to pay more than $790,000 in restitution, the AP reported. The report cited federal court papers saying that Nakoula had used the name Nicola Bacily, among other aliases.
Nakoula said that he supported the concerns of his fellow Coptic Christians regarding their treatment by Egypt’s Muslim majority.
The Anti-Defamation League on Thursday issued a statement urging news organizations to do more to correct earlier false reports of a Jewish connection to the film.
“We are greatly concerned that this false notion that an Israeli Jew and 100 Jewish backers were behind the film now has legs and is gathering speed around the world,” said the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman. “In an age where conspiracy theories, especially ones of an anti-Semitic nature, explode on the Internet in a matter of minutes, it is crucial for those news organizations who initially reported on his identity to correct the record.”
Foxman added that even after it became clear that the filmmaker was not Jewish, “news organizations across the Arab world and anti-Semites and anti-Israel activists have continued to describe him as such.”
As of Friday, the English-language website of Iran’s Press TV was still repeating the false reports that the film was produced by an Israeli and financed by Jews.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Thursday issued a statement saying that the film “showed the fury of the evil Zionists at the daily-increasing radiance of Islam and Holy Qur’an in the present world.”
He said that the “prime suspects in this crime are Zionism and the US government” and demanded that American politicians make those behind the film “face a punishment proportionate to this great crime.”
In Jerusalem on Friday, hundreds of Palestinians clashed with Israeli police after leaving prayers on the Temple Mount. According to The Jerusalem Post, police said the youths, some of whom threw stones, were headed to the city’s U.S. consulate.
In Tel Aviv on Thursday, a small group of Muslim protesters demonstrated peacefully outside the U.S. embassy.
Taleb a-Sanaa, an Arab member of Israel’s Knesset, said Thursday that "Zionist elements" are trying to encourage hatred of Islam "out of political considerations.”