WASHINGTON — Federal authorities identified a Southern California man who is on federal probation for financial crimes as the key figure behind an anti-Muslim film that has spawned mob violence against American embassies across the Mideast, a U.S. law enforcement official told The Associated Press on Thursday.
There was no sign of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, at his family’s home Thursday in Cerritos outside Los Angeles, as details slowly began to emerge about his checkered past, his connections among Southern California’s right-wing Christian organizations and his central role in the production of the film.
Excerpts from the movie, which the filmmaker said was called “Innocence of Muslims,” enraged Islamic protesters in Egypt, Libya and Yemen over its portrayal of the prophet Muhammad.
Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed Thursday that the Justice Department had opened a criminal investigation into the deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other diplomats killed during an attack on the American mission in Benghazi. It was not immediately clear whether authorities were focusing on Nakoula as part of that probe.
Much about the film remains a mystery, including who financed it. Several actors have come forward and claimed they were duped about their roles, and that incendiary language was dubbed over their lines.
The permit to shoot the film, normally a public document, is being withheld at the “request of federal authorities, who have cited public safety concerns,” according to Ryan Alsop, assistant chief executive office for Los Angeles County. He did not elaborate. Such permits normally contain little more than logistical information.
Questions remained about whether Nakoula’s filmmaking and Internet distribution activities might have violated his federal probation and send him back to prison.
Nakoula pleaded no contest in 2010 to federal bank fraud charges in California and was ordered to pay more than $790,000 in restitution. He was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison and ordered not to use computers, the Internet or online user or screen names for five years without approval from his probation officer. He is still on probation, according to court records.
The YouTube account under the username “Sam Bacile,” which was used to publish excerpts of the provocative movie in July, was used again as recently as this week.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees federal probation offices, and a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, which prosecuted Nakoula, declined to discuss his case Thursday. Under court rules, the government may ask a judge to send a convict back to prison if there is probable cause to show that probation conditions were violated.
A convict on probation doesn’t have the same rights to free speech or against unreasonable searches, said Jennifer Granick, a criminal defense lawyer who specializes in online crimes.
“Until you’re done with supervision, you don’t have full rights,” Granick said. “They can search you without a warrant.”
The law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because this official was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation, confirmed the AP’s earlier reporting that Nakoula was connected to the persona of Sam Bacile, a figure who initially claimed to be the writer and director of the film. Bacile turned out to be a false identity, and the AP tracked a cellphone number used by Bacile to a home in Cerritos where it found Nakoula.
Sheriff’s deputies were called to Nakoula’s property overnight, though Los Angeles County sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said Nakoula was not in protective custody. He said county authorities were present because roughly two dozen reporters and film crews were waiting to interview Nakoula.
Nakoula’s criminal record includes a 1997 conviction for possessing drugs used to make methamphetamine, according to Los Angeles County Superior Court records.
Sheriff’s authorities testified that Nakoula was stopped in March that year after unloading boxes of pills from a U-Haul truck at a house in Lake Elsinore, Calif. Authorities stopped Nakoula later and found a receipt for the purchase of pseudophedrine, a main ingredient in meth, and $45,000 in a paper bag.
He avoided a one-year county jail sentence by performing community service and was on probation for three years.
Nakoula told the AP that he is Coptic Christian.
An official of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Los Angeles said in a statement Thursday that the church’s adherents had no involvement in the “inflammatory movie about the prophet of Islam.” The official, identified as Bishop Serapion of the Coptic Orthodox of Los Angeles, said that “the producers of this movie should be responsible for their actions. The name of our blessed parishioners should not be associated with the efforts of individuals who have ulterior motives.”
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.
Coptic Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the largest Christian church in Egypt.
Once a majority in Egypt, Coptic Christians now make up about 10 percent of the country’s 85 million people. They are the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Many Egyptian Christians fled to the U.S. to escape what they say is religious discrimination in the majority Muslim nation.