US federal authorities have identified a Coptic Christian in southern California who is on probation after his conviction for financial crimes as the key figure behind the anti-Muslim film that ignited mob violence against US embassies across the Middle East, a US law enforcement official told The Associated Press.
The official said on Thursday that authorities had concluded that Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, was behind Innocence of Muslims, a film that denigrated Islam and the prophet Mohammed and sparked protests earlier this week in Egypt, Libya and most recently in Yemen. It was not immediately clear whether Nakoula was the target of a criminal investigation or part of the broader investigation into the deaths of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya during a terrorist attack.
Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed on Thursday that US Justice Department officials were investigating the deaths, which occurred during an attack on the US mission in Benghazi.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation, said Nakoula was connected to the persona of Sam Bacile, a man who initially told the AP he was the film’s writer and director. However, Bacile turned out to be a false identity, and the AP traced a cellphone number Bacile used to a southern California house where it located and interviewed Nakoula.
Bacile initially told AP he was Jewish and Israeli, although Israeli officials said they had no records of such a citizen. Others involved in the film said his statements were contrived, as evidence mounted that the film’s key player was a Coptic Christian with a checkered past.
Nakoula told the AP in an interview outside Los Angeles on Wednesday that he managed logistics for the company that produced the film. Nakoula denied he was Bacile and said he did not direct the film, though he said he knew Bacile.
Federal court papers filed against Nakoula in a 2010 criminal prosecution noted that he had used numerous aliases, including Nicola Bacily, Robert Bacily, Erwin Salameh and others.
During a conversation outside his home, Nakoula offered his driver’s license to show his identity but kept his thumb over his middle name, Basseley. Records checks by the AP subsequently found that middle name as well as other connections to the Bacile persona.
The AP located the man calling himself Bacile after obtaining his cellphone number from Morris Sadek, a conservative Coptic Christian in the US who has promoted the anti-Muslim film in recent days on his Web site. Egypt’s Christian Coptic populace has long decried what they describe as a history of discrimination and occasional violence from the country’s Muslim majority.
Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida, who sparked outrage in the Arab world when he burned Qurans on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the US, said he spoke with the movie’s director on the phone on Wednesday and prayed for him. Jones said he has not met the filmmaker in person, but added that the man contacted him a few weeks ago about promoting the movie. Jones and others who have dealt with the filmmaker said on Wednesday that Bacile was hiding his real identity.
“I have not met him. Sam Bacile, that is not his real name,” Jones said. “He is definitely in hiding and does not reveal his identity.”