Intrepid reporters and federal investigators seem to have found the man behind Innocence of Muslims — and he's almost as mysterious as his bigoted film
The hunt for Sam Bacile, the driving force behind the Islam-defaming movie sparking violent anti-U.S. protests in the Middle East, appears to be over. And he is not the Israeli real estate developer he claimed to be, or even named Sam Bacile. Instead, he's an Egyptian Coptic Christian ex-convict named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. Who is Nakoula, what's his connection to the troublesome film, and what does he want? Here's a look:
What do we know about Nakoula B. Nakoula?
He's a 55-year-old gas station owner in the Los Angeles suburbs with a rap sheet dating back to the 1990s and an impressive list of aliases. The Daily Beast, citing a source close to the Los Angeles D.A.'s office, says Nakoula pleaded guilty in 1997 to cooking methamphetamine and was sentenced to a year in county jail; he reportedly served another year after violating his parole in 2002. In 2000, he declared bankruptcy for his gas station. In 2010, he was convicted in federal court of a year-long scheme in which he created fake bank accounts with stolen Social Security numbers, then withdrew money on fraudulent checks before they bounced. He was ordered to pay $794,700 in restitution and stay off computers and the internet without explicit permission for five years, and served about a year of a 21-month sentence.
How certain is it that Nakoula is the filmmaker?
The evidence is strong but largely circumstantial. Nakoula admits to offering logistical support for the company that created the film but denies — to both the AP and local Coptic Orthodox prelate Bishop Serapion — that he is Sam Bacile. Then again, "Nakoula says a lot of things," says Amy Sullivan at The New Republic. He claims to know Bacile, but it's pretty clear that no such person exists. AP and Wall Street Journal reporters separately traced the cellphone numbers they used to talk to "Bacile" back to Nakoula's house, journalists camping outside the house Thursday noticed striking similarities between Nakoula's property and scenes from the movie, and federal law enforcement sources told the AP they've concluded that Nakoula was the driving force behind the film. Also, the aliases Nakoula used in his financial fraud include different iterations of Bacily and Bassely.
Are there any alternate theories?
Sort of. Jimmy Israel, a man who says he briefly worked on the movie as a producer, tells BuzzFeed's John Herrman that Bacile had him register the film with SAG under the name Abnob Nakoula Basseley, and an actor who worked on the film sent a check from the gig signed Abanob Basseley Nakoula — apparently Nakoula's 21-year-old son, according to California birth records. But Israel describes Bacile as in his 50s, like Nakoula, and given Nakoula's history with bank fraud and the terms of his probation, says BuzzFeed's Herrman, he "may have been using his son's name for legal reasons." So all in all, Israel's story is actually "consistent with the theory that Bacile is Nakoula."
Why did he allegedly make the film?
With all the shadiness and deception, it's not clear. "Sam Bacile" told the AP that "Islam is a cancer," suggesting he was looking for a cure. A self-described adviser to the film, Christian activist Steve Stein, has said the purpose was to trick Muslims into learning the supposedly sordid "truth" about their Prophet Mohammed. "Sam said the intent of the film was to get extremist Muslims to stop killing," Klein told The New York Times on Thursday. If that's true, Nakoula couldn't have "thought through many details of his grand plan," says The New Republic's Sullivan. Ending Islamist violence by defaming Mohammed is "something even Wile E. Coyote would see couldn't possibly work," and all Nakoula has really done is put Egypt's Coptic Christians — his people — in mortal danger. On the other hand, "if it was deliberate attempt to incite violence in the Middle East, then he was sadly successful," say Noah Shachtman and Robert Beckhusen at Wired. "What wasn't successful were the poor attempts at using fraudulent names to cover his tracks."
What happens to Nakoula now?
The FBI is investigating the killing in Libya of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. diplomatic personnel, although it's not clear if Nakoula is part of that inquiry. Other than presumably violating the terms of his parole, it's hard to see what crime Nakoula has committed. The only thing that is clear is that we don't know the whole story, says BuzzFeed's Herrman, and that what we do know is "phenomenally strange."
Other stories from this topic:
- Instant Guide: What really happened in Benghazi? A guide
- Fact Sheet: The quietly heroic life of Ambassador Chris Stevens
- Opinion Brief: Fallout in Libya: Has the Arab Spring turned against us?