CERRITOS, California (Reuters) - Evidence mounted on Thursday that a Los Angeles-area man who served time in prison for bank fraud may have been involved in an anti-Muslim video that stoked violent protests in the Islamic world against the United States.
Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, who lives in the Los Angeles suburb of Cerritos, has been linked by news organizations to production of the low-budget film clip, which has been circulated under several titles, including “Innocence of Muslims.”
The 13-minute English-language video, which was filmed in California, portrays the Muslim Prophet Mohammad engaged in crude and offensive behaviour. Many of the Islamic faith regard any depiction of the prophet as blasphemous.
The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed on Tuesday in an attack on the U.S. consulate and a safe house in Benghazi that U.S. officials have said may have been planned. The attackers were part of a crowd blaming America for a film they said insulted the Prophet Mohammad.
Demonstrations against the film have also flared in Egypt, Yemen and other Muslim countries, with U.S. embassies again the targets of popular anger among Muslims questioning why the United States has failed to take action against the makers of the film.
Adding to the incendiary nature of the film was the fact that it had been promoted by a U.S.-based Egyptian Coptic Christian activist who said his intention was to highlight discrimination against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. Copts have expressed fear the film could lead to retaliation.
The Coptic Bishop for Los Angeles, who said he feared the impact of the film on the Coptic community if Copts are linked to it, told Reuters that Nakoula called him on Thursday denying any link to the film.
“He told me that he was not involved in this movie in any way, and I asked him, ‘Why did they put your name’” on it? Bishop Serapion told Reuters. The bishop said Nakoula replied that he was essentially the victim of mistaken identity by the media.
Another Coptic clergyman in California, Father Mauritius of St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Bellflower, described Nakoula as a former parishioner who had been an infrequent worshiper before he quit attending three years ago. He said he had no reason to believe Nakoula harboured any extremist views.
The Los Angeles Coptic diocese issued a statement condemning and disavowing any Coptic association with the film.
“The producers of this movie should be responsible for their actions,” the diocese said. “The name of our blessed parishioners should not be associated with the efforts of individuals who have ulterior motives.”
Attempts by Reuters to contact Nakoula directly were unsuccessful. But it appeared that at least one scene in the video may have been filmed at Nakoula’s home.
A distinctive interior front door shown in one scene was nearly indistinguishable from the exterior door at Nakoula’s house. Both have frosted-glass, half-moon-shaped cut-outs with stencilled rose designs in the wood double-door entrance.
The house was besieged on Thursday by throngs of reporters and camera crews, who saw residents inside paper over at least one half-moon window for privacy. Police maintained a light presence near the home after they were called to the scene on Wednesday night over concerns about Nakoula’s safety. The officers declined to elaborate.
The Coptic activist from Virginia, Morris Sadek, who said he played a role in promoting the video, gave Reuters a telephone number for a man he described as the filmmaker. That number later traced back to the Nakoula residence.
That number turned up in a public-records search as a pay-as-you-go cell phone registered to a user who shares a residence with Nakoula. The number initially went unanswered and later seemed to have been disconnected.
Sadek had attributed the video to a man he named as Sam Bacile, which was also the name used by an individual who posted a copy of the video in July on YouTube. But at least two other people linked to the film have said that name was likely a pseudonym.
Federal authorities investigating the slayings in Libya declined to comment on whether Nakoula was linked to the movie. He has been known to federal law enforcement for other reasons long before the anti-Muslim video emerged.
He pleaded guilty to bank fraud in 2010 and was sentenced to 21 months in prison, to be followed by five years on supervised probation, court documents showed. He was released from prison in June 2011, shortly before production began on the video, prison records show.
Nakoula was accused of fraudulently opening bank and credit card accounts using Social Security numbers that did not match the names given on applications, according to a criminal complaint.
Under the written terms of release from prison, Nakoula was forbidden from using the Internet or assuming any aliases without approval of his probation officer. He also was ordered to make restitution for more than $790,000 from the scam.
Nakoula also pleaded guilty in 1997 to possession with intent to manufacture methamphetamine and was sentenced to a year in jail, said Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office.
Meanwhile, details of the film’s production remained murky.
A group called Media for Christ, which maintains an Arabic-language Christian website, obtained a permit to shoot the film on August 8, 2011, at a studio in the Santa Clarita Valley, north of Los Angeles, said Paul Audley, president of FilmL.A., the agency that processes regional on-location film permits.
The area is home to a Middle East-style village stage set commonly used for Hollywood productions, Audley added.
The actual permit for the shoot was withheld from the public on Thursday. Los Angeles County assistant CEO Ryan Alsop said in a statement that the permit was removed due to “public safety concerns” raised by the U.S. State Department and the FBI.
Media for Christ is a non-profit organization based in Duarte, California, which describes itself as an evangelical Christian group, according to federal tax documents. A 2011 tax filing listed revenue of just over $1 million but did not disclose its main donors.
Officials from the group could not immediately be reached, and the front door to the organization’s office in Duarte was locked.
Additional reporting by Steve Gorman, Alex Dobuzinskis, Cynthia Johnston, Tim Reid and Mark Hosenball; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Martin Howell and Philip Barbara