NEW YORK — He’s not a Jew.
At least that’s the latest on the man behind the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims, which has fuelled attacks on U.S. diplomatic installations in Libya, Egypt and Yemen. The Libya attack left the country's U.S. ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other diplomats dead.
The filmmaker appears to be an Egyptian Christian rather than an Israeli Jew, as he had claimed in interviews.
The Associated Press 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 apparently 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 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 with an Arabic translation 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 Islamists stormed the U.S. Consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi, killing Stevens and three members of his staff. Fighters claimed that their actions were driven by anger at the film, though U.S. officials believe the assault may have been pre-planned.
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 were also more anti-American demonstrations in Cairo and other capitals of Muslim countries.
In the wake of the initial violence, several media outlets interviewed a California man who gave his name as Sam Bacile who 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.
A member of the film’s cast, who said she and others involved with the film were misled about its true message, said the film’s director 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.
A host of Jewish organizations have issued statements condemning the attacks on U.S. installations.
The Atlantic's Goldberg noted that the erroneous reports about the filmmaker's alleged Jewish background have spread across the Middle East and as a consequence endangered Jews. As of Thursday, Iran’s Press TV was still reporting that the film was produced by an Israeli American and financed by Jews.
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 antisemitic 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 antisemites and anti-Israel activists have continued to describe him as such.”