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LOS ANGELES — The search for those behind the provocative, anti-Muslim film that triggered mobs in Egypt and Libya led Wednesday to a California Coptic Christian convicted of financial crimes who acknowledged his role in managing and providing logistics for the production.
Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, told The Associated Press in an interview outside Los Angeles that he was manager for the company that produced “Innocence of Muslims,” which mocked Muslims and the prophet Mohammed and was implicated in inflaming mobs that attacked U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya. He provided the first details about a shadowy production group behind the film.
Nakoula denied he directed the film and said he knew the self-described filmmaker, Sam Bacile. But the cellphone number that AP contacted Tuesday to reach the filmmaker who identified himself as Sam Bacile traced to the same address near Los Angeles where AP found Nakoula. Federal court papers said Nakoula’s aliases included Nicola Bacily, Erwin Salameh and others.
Nakoula told the AP that he was a Coptic Christian and said the film’s director supported the concerns of Christian Copts about their treatment by Muslims.
Nakoula denied he had posed as Bacile. During a conversation outside his home, he 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 it and other connections to the Bacile persona.
The AP located Bacile after obtaining his cell phone number from Morris Sadek, a conservative Coptic Christian in the U.S. who had promoted the anti-Muslim film in recent days on his website. Egypt’s Christian Coptic population has long decried what they describe as a history of discrimination and occasional violence from the country’s Arab majority.
Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Fla., who burned Qurans on the ninth anniversary of 9/11, said he spoke with the movie’s director on the phone Wednesday and prayed for him. He said he has not met the filmmaker in person, but the man contacted him a few weeks ago about promoting the movie.
“I have not met him. Sam Bacile, that is not his real name,” Jones said. “I just talked to him on the phone. He is definitely in hiding and does not reveal his identity. He was quite honestly fairly shook up concerning the events and what is happening. A lot of people are not supporting him. He was generally a little shook up concerning this situation.”
Protesters enraged by the amateurish film and its cartoonish portrait of Islamic figures burned the U.S. consulate Tuesday in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
Libyan officials said Wednesday that Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other embassy employees were killed during the mob violence, but U.S. officials now say they are investigating whether the assault was a planned terrorist strike linked to Tuesday’s 11-year anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.
Nakoula, who talked guardedly about his role, 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 also sentenced to 21 months in federal prison and ordered not to use computers or the Internet for five years without approval from his probation officer.
The Youtube account, “Sam Bacile,” which was used to publish excerpts of the provocative movie in July, was posting comments online as recently as Tuesday.
The person who identified himself as Bacile and described himself as the film’s writer and director told the AP on Tuesday that he has gone into hiding. But doubts rose about the man’s identity amid a flurry of false claims about his background and role in the purported film.
Bacile told the AP he was an Israeli-born, 56-year-old, Jewish writer and director. But a Christian activist involved in the film project, Steve Klein, said Wednesday that Bacile was a pseudonym, he was not Jewish or Israeli and a group of Americans of Mideast origin collaborated on the film. Officials in Israel also said there was no record of Bacile as an Israeli citizen.
In his brief interview with the AP, Bacile defiantly called Islam a cancer and said he intended the film to be a provocative political statement condemning the religion.
But several key facts Bacile provided proved false or questionable. Bacile told AP he was 56 but identified himself on his YouTube profile as 74. Bacile said he is a real estate developer, but Bacile does not appear in searches of California state licenses, including the Department of Real Estate.
Hollywood and California film industry groups and permit agencies said they had no records of the project. A man who answered a phone listed for the Vine Theater, a faded Hollywood movie house, confirmed that the film had run for a least a day, and possibly longer, several months ago, arranged by a customer known as “Sam.”
Google Inc., which owns YouTube, pulled down the video Wednesday in Egypt, citing a legal complaint. It was still accessible in the U.S. and other countries.
Klein told The Atlantic on Wednesday that Bacile was a pseudonym and that he was not Jewish or Israeli. Klein had earlier told the AP that the filmmaker was concerned for family members who live in Egypt. Klein did not return phone messages by the AP on Wednesday.
“Nobody is anything but an active American citizen,” Klein told the Atlantic. “They’re from Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, there are some that are from Egypt. Some are Copts but the vast majority are evangelical.”
Klein told the AP that he vowed to help make the movie but warned the filmmaker that “you’re going to be the next Theo van Gogh.” Van Gogh was a Dutch filmmaker killed by a Muslim extremist in 2004 after making a film that was perceived as insulting to Islam.
“We went into this knowing this was probably going to happen,” Klein said.
Braun reported from Washington.
Associated Press writers Shaya Tayefe Mohajer and Michael Blood in Los Angeles, Tamara Lush in Tampa, Fla., and AP researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.
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