Nakoula Basseley Nakoula shuffled into a U.S. District Court on Wednesday with five U.S. marshals by his side. The disheveled and dissipated-looking jailbird is believed to be the mastermind behind the controversial 13-minute Innocence of Muslims film clip uploaded on YouTube that sparked deadly protests in the Middle East and initially was blamed for the attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans on Sept.11.
Handcuffed with a chain around his waist and wearing white prison attire that signifies he is under protective custody, the one-time gas-station attendant is accused by federal authorities of violating his parole on a 2010 bank fraud scheme when he used a string of aliases and lied to probation officers about his role in the making of the amateurish, crudely-made flick that depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, pedophile, and homosexual. He also is accused of possessing a driver’s license under a false name.
The 55-year-old father of three who is based in Cerritos, Calif., and has been in federal lockup since last month, denied under oath that he violated terms of his probation, and although Muslim extremists want him dead, asked U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder through his attorney, Steve Seiden, if he could be taken out of protective custody and put in the general population. Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Dugdale argued that the bizarre request, which would place him in close proximity to hundreds of inmates, would be “unwise.”
The 15-minute, heavily-guarded hearing set the stage for an evidentiary hearing scheduled for Nov. 9. At the upcoming hearing, federal prosecutors must provide evidence proving, among other things, that Nakoula, who changed his name to Mark Basseley Youssef in 2002, was more than a self-proclaimed scriptwriter.
Outside the court building, Seiden told a swarm of reporters that Nakoula isn’t to blame for the deadly protests in the Middle East. “My client was not the cause of the violence in the Middle East,” he said. “Clearly it was pre-planned.”
Nakoula’s transformation from obscure gas station attendant with a prior drug rap to internationally-known felon is almost hard to fathom. It began when he allegedly claimed to media outlets that he was Sam Bacile, a 52-year-old Israeli real-estate developer in California, and that the film was made with $5 million raised from 100 Jewish donors because “Islam is a cancer.”
However, doubts about Bacile’s identity quickly began to surface after Steve Klein, a veteran anti-Muslim organizer based in Hemet, Calif., and the film’s consultant, told news organizations “Bacile” was a pseudonym, and that he was neither Jewish nor Israeli.
As officials and journalists began digging for details about “Bacile,” it quickly became apparent that he did not exist. Federal law enforcement officials soon confirmed to the Associated Press that the man behind the film was Nakoula, an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian convicted on federal bank fraud charges in 2010.
It was not Nakoula’s first run-in with the law, or county officials. In 1997, he was arrested by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and charged with intent to manufacture methamphetamine. After Nakoula was caught with boxes of ephedrine and a lunch bag full of cash, Lt. Kent Wegener of the Sheriff’s Department told The Daily Beast, Wegener was tipped off about Nakoula by another law enforcement agency. “When he bailed out we got a tip he was going to flee the country,” he said.
In 2010, a Los Angeles child support agency filed a complaint against Nakoula demanding that he pay his wife, Olivia Ibrahim, $483 a month in child support for their two children. According to the court papers, Nakoula’s children were receiving public assistance from the County of Los Angeles in September of 2009. That same year, Nakoula claimed he was making $1,387 a month.
Soon after Nakoula’s true identity came to light, some of the bit players in the drama began to emerge. Florida-based pastor Terry Jones, who sparked protests two years ago when he pledged to organize a mass burning of copies of the Quran in Florida, said he was contacted to promote the film. Then, Morris Sadek, a radical Washington, D.C.-based Egyptian-born Coptic Christian, claimed he translated the film into Arabic and sent it to Egyptian journalists.
As new details emerged, it was discovered that part of the movie was filmed at Media for Christ, an evangelical organization based in Duarte, Calif., that distributes the word of God to the Arab world. It is run by Joseph Nassralla, a gospel singer who gave a speech in New York in 2010 that criticized plans to build a mosque near the former World Trade Center site. Nassralla told The Daily Beast that his words were taken out of context and he is not anti-Muslim. “I’m into human rights,” he said.
Nasralla told The Daily Beast he met Nakoula at a Coptic church in Los Angeles. He said Nakoula asked him if he would help him produce a film about the persecution of Christians in Egypt. Nassralla, who said he had his leg broken and neck burned by the Egyptian military, told Nakoula he wasn’t in the business of producing movies.
“He said, ‘I just need your facility,’” he said. “I feel like he felt overwhelmed with what Islam was doing to Christians. That is what he said to me. ‘I have to tell everyone about the persecution.’”
Nassralla said he was duped by Nakoula and had no idea the movie would be a hit piece, and that he had nothing to do with the making of the movie or getting the permit for it, even though Media for Christ is named on it.
“[Nakoula] got the permit under our name,” said Nassralla. “It was without my knowledge. He didn’t tell me. I didn’t deserve to have all this kinds of media. My family is paying the price for this.”
Los Angeles real estate trader Jimmy Israel says he met the man who called himself “Sam Bacile” in the fall of 2010 after he got a call from the director, reportedly soft pornographer Alan Roberts (real name supposedly Robert Brownell) whose body of work includes Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood, who urged him to audition for an acting role in a movie called Desert Warriors. Israel said he didn’t get the part, but he was later offered $10,000 to replace the film’s director.
“When you have spent a good part of your life in the film industry you meet people like this over and over again,” he told The Daily Beast. “Everybody has a screenplay they have written. And 99 percent of it is just terrible. [Nakoula] is more the norm than unique.”
At one point, Israel said, Nakoula told the original director that he was suffering from cancer and had a relapse and didn’t know if he could continue with the project.
“He didn’t want anyone to visit him, which we thought was strange,” said Israel. “Obviously he was in jail. We know that now.”
Israel said he worked for Nakoula for only two days, but just got paid for one. “I got paid through his daughter, who went twice to my bank and put 100 and then 200,” he said. “They were supposed to put in another 300 but they didn’t pay me.”
Israel said Nakoula took him out to dinner meetings a couple of times. During one meeting, Nakoula claimed his relatives made $10 million after they sold real estate in Dubai, and wanted to purchase property in the United States. “He was going to introduce them to me so I could place some of their money in real estate and place some in the film. I think he was making it up. It never got past the con job. I think he was trying to string me along in case [the director] didn’t continue.”
After the trailer was uploaded on YouTube and Nakoula and his family went into hiding, an Egyptian prosecutor issued arrest warrants for seven people, including Nakoula, Terry Jones, and Bishop Serapion of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Los Angeles. The Egyptian prosecutor’s office charged them with insulting Islam and spreading false information.
Serapion got tossed into the mix after he told reporters that Nakoula contacted him claiming he had nothing to do with the clip. Thousands of Serapion’s followers signed a petition supporting him.
“[The bishop] was very clear about the condemnation of the project,” said Father Joseph Boules, a priest at St. Mary and St. Verena Church in Anaheim, Calif. “My grace [Serapion] made it very clear that our church doesn’t support anything like that. It doesn’t have anything to do with the Christian spirit … When you have someone willing to do something like that, most of the time they are not committed to the Orthodox teaching. They are definitely outsiders of the church. If they listen to the messages they would never be influenced in this way.”