MOVE OVER, MICHAEL BAY
‘Hillary Blamed Me for Benghazi’
The weird, wild tale of the porn director, the evangelical Christians, and the criminal huckster who made the infamous Prophet Muhammad YouTube film.
For those who like shock and awe and explosions, this weekend brings the release of director Michael Bay’s Benghazi blockbuster—13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi—about the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Libya that left an ambassador, a foreign service agent, and two CIA officers dead.
This may be Hollywood’s first big film about the bloodshed, but there’s another movie that lies at the center of the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2012. I’m talking about that YouTube short variously called “Innocence of Bin Laden,” “Desert Warrior,” “First Terrorist,” “Innocence of Muslims”—and, in the iteration that was blamed for setting off riots around the globe, “Muhammad Movie Trailer.” The one that portrayed the prophet as a sodomizing, womanizing pedophile. The one that Hillary Clinton was talking about when, according to the father of a Benghazi victim, she promised, “We are going to have the filmmaker arrested who was responsible for the death of [your] son.”
It was quite a claim for a movie directed by a porn veteran, produced by a convicted huckster, led by actors who claim they were duped into the roles, and promoted by a collection of anti-Islamic hatemongers and almost comically crackpot preachers.
Sure enough, U.S. intelligence agencies almost immediately concluded that the Libyan attacks had been planned well in advance of the riots, and Clinton’s initial impulse to blame “Innocence of Muslims” became the stuff of a thousand congressional hearings and ten thousand Fox News segments.
But the fog of untruths and unanswered questions has continued to swirl around this odd, inconvenient movie. A few months ago, I tracked down the principal players who helped create Benghazi Film 1.0—even the unlucky kid who played Muhammad (“George” in the script), who has so far managed to remain anonymous. None of them wanted to talk to me about Innocence of Muslims. But one man did agree to talk—the man at the center of the controversy, who in one breath will claim credit for the Islamaphobic film and in the next, blame the trailer on vague maleficent forces or on “Arabian” agents. That man goes by many names, but we’ll refer to him by the one that he seems to have been born with, or at least, the one he emigrated to America with in the 1980s: Nakoula Basseley Nakoula.
Over the course of three meetings this past October, Nakoula talked, and dodged, and talked some more: about the making and distribution of the film, about the fallout after its release, about his thoughts on Islam and Hillary Clinton, and about his new supporters, among them a conservative Muslim-hating pastor. Whether anything he told me is true remains to be seen. It’s probably unlikely, given his slipperiness about his criminal history and his documented record of lying about the YouTube film. There’s only one thing for certain when it comes to Innocence of Muslims—the deeper you dig into this story, the weirder it gets.
When I finally found Nakoula this past fall, I didn’t expect him to meet with me. He’d been cagey with the press ever since they identified him as the owner of the YouTube account that uploaded the Benghazi film. At first, he told reporters his name was Sam Bacile—the alias on the account—and that he was an Israeli-American real estate developer playing auteur with $5 million in donations from Jewish donors. All of that was false. He was an Egyptian Coptic Christian with a pathetic criminal history (convictions for gas-pump price fixing, intent to manufacture meth, Social Security fraud) and a list of pseudonyms longer than the Suez Canal.
“Sam Bacile” was also the alias Nakoula used when he recruited some 130 struggling actors and extras in 2011 to star in a film called Desert Warrior—a slapstick blood-and-gore drama with a terrible script. From what the actors could tell, it was set in “ancient Arabia,” with a weird mix of foreign and modern-sounding names (“George,” “Helen,” “Abdo el Mutlab.”) The words “Muhammad” and “Islam” never appeared in the screenplay—but they were dubbed in, front and center, in a feature-length cut of the movie, retitled The Innocence of Bin Laden, which was shown to a small audience at the Vine Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in June 23, 2012. That screening attracted virtually no attention, nor did the first YouTube post from “Sam Bacile,” a 14-minute trailer for Innocence of Muslims uploaded in July.
When “Sam Bacile” retitled his clip “Muhammad Movie Trailer,” that’s when things started to get hot. At some point over the summer, Quran-burning Florida pastor Terry Jones got behind the film. Jones told me he “still supports” Nakoula and that he was sent the amateur cut footage by an Egyptian expat lawyer living in Washington, D.C. “We mainly supported it based up on this friend of ours asking us to do it,” Jones said, referring to a Coptic Christian extremist named Morris Sadek. “I would have done it without seeing the film to tell you the truth just because the request came from him.”
On Sept. 4, 2012, the video was uploaded onto YouTube again with an Arabic translation—and immediately set off protests in various Arabic-language chat rooms. An Egyptian-based Islamist media group called Al-Marsad caught wind of the video and circulated it. Meanwhile, Jones and Sadek promoted “International Judge Muhammad Day,” where they planned to screen the 14-minute clip at Jones’s church. By Sept. 8, the video was all over Egyptian religious television—with its crude sexual jokes about Muhammad being gay and interested in “dominant or submissive” coitus with little girls and prostitutes—and bedlam erupted in the Middle East, with as many as 50 deaths recorded. Then the American consulate in Libya was stormed on the 11th, and the rest is history.
By uploading the film to YouTube, Nakoula had violated the terms (having to do with Internet use) of a previous probation—the one for bank fraud—and soon landed back in jail. But before he did, he let slip a few hints about his motivations for making the movie. “This movie is a political movie,” he told The Wall Street Journal, adding, “Islam is a hateful religion… Islam is a cancer.” To The New York Times, he said, “I thought, before I wrote this script, that I should burn myself in a public square to let the American people and the people of the world know this message that I believe in.”
From the start, Innocence of Muslims attracted a kooky band of ultraconservative Christian supporters who seem to have regarded the film—and perhaps Nakoula, too—as the perfect vehicle to stir the flames of holy war. In addition to Terry Jones, Nakoula found an admirer in Joseph Nasrallah, the Coptic founder of Media for Christ, who let the would-be filmmaker use a soundstage for free at his facility in Duarte, California, to shoot Innocence of Muslims. Another pro-Nakoula firebrand is Steven Klein, noted Pamela Gellar fan and founder of the anti-abortion, anti-Mormon, and anti-Islam group Courageous Christians United. Klein’s name has appeared in ISIS’s Dabiq magazine and he hosts a regular television show at Media for Christ. Both Klein and Nakoula are also friendly with a California-based Coptic Christian zealot named Father Zakaria Botros, who has been called “Islam’s enemy number one” and who once described Islam as “the falsest religion” and Muhammad as “a pervert”—although Klein told me that with the release of “Innocence of Muslims,” Botros was “absolutely terrified” and “refused to talk to me.”
Klein still stands behind Nakoula to this day. “He has 500 names and he’s ripped off everybody in the world but I love the guy,” Klein told me. The duo met when Nakoula rang him up to ask whether making an anti-Muhammad film would land him in prison. Klein says he assured Nakoula that the First Amendment would protect him.
Though Klein has never seen the full film, he nevertheless calls himself its official spokesperson. “I am very proud of it,” he told me. “I want to inflame the Muslim world so that they act too soon and people will begin to realize how dangerous Islam is. That would be like putting the word out on Adolf Hitler.”
Klein was at the Vine Theater in disguise, keeping vigil when Innocence of Bin Laden premiered in June 2012. “I dyed my hair and wore a mustache and I sat in my car there for a half-hour before showtime,” he said. “Nakoula was not there but I called him up on the phone and told him, ‘It’s a bust. Nobody showed.’”
Klein was also there when Nakoula was released from prison on Sept. 26, 2013, after a year in the slammer for violating his probation. He helped place the filmmaker at a homeless shelter run out of Pastor Wiley Drake’s First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park, where Nakoula has quietly lived for the past two years. You might remember Drake from his birther case against President Obama, which almost made it all the way to the Supreme Court. An Arkansas native and Vietnam veteran, the Southern Baptist preacher is now running for President of the United States—watch out, Donald Trump—and likes to sound off on global politics. “The Bible says that Syria was an ungodly nation and that we need to stand against them,” Drake told me. “All those countries talked about in the Bible are pagan countries that need to be brought to God.”
Drake calls his little sanctuary for the poor “Wiley World” and refers to Nakoula musingly as “Mr. Benghazi.” He says his notable tenant is a “special case”; instead of sleeping in the 52-bed dormitory for itinerants, Nakoula is allotted a separate bedroom. He can also attend his preferred Coptic church services rather than worship with the Southern Baptists. “He works here, he helps in the kitchen, he helps serve food,” Drake told me. “He helps on the computer.” (Drake adds: “When he first came here, he wasn’t allowed to use the computer,” because of the terms of the prison release. “That was stupid.”)
The 58-year-old Nakoula—who’s now calling himself “Mark Youssef”—appears frail when we meet at Drake’s parish. He shows me the blue cross of the Coptic Christians, tattooed on his wrist. He is twice divorced and can barely get gigs as a pizza chef or chauffeur, he says. The Chevron station he once owned and operated in Hawaiian Gardens (where the price fixing went down) has since changed hands. A clerk there told me, “It needed a lot of renovation because it was a mess before. The floor was all dirt.”
“Mr. Drake pays the bills,” Nakoula tells me at our second meeting inside a prefab wooden chapel, adding that he plans to stay at First Baptist forever—or at least “until I can find a job, until I—you know, maybe I can find a wife to live with. I can get married or something.”
“In all honesty, he has taken money from me,” Drake admits. “Not cash money, but he eats here, he sleeps here… This church paid for that.”
From time to time, Nakoula appears in one of Drake’s online shows, talking about the fallout from his film and fantasizing about bringing Muhammad back to the big screen with “famous actors, famous directors, and big money.” He also hosted his own show on Drake’s platform titled The Truth, where he would idle as a VJ, as sermons played in Arabic.
Nakoula’s business card still reads “Movie Maker.” Even though he proclaims to want to stay out of the spotlight, he’s been hawking a self-published tome on Amazon called Innocence, which features over 1,200 storyboard illustrations for the feature-length film. “This thing, it’s a journal and I know it’s a treasure,” Nakoula tells me of the 315-page project. “I know it’s a treasure.” He also tells me he’s writing a book about Hillary Clinton, tentatively titled The Pharaoh between Henry and Hillary, which he describes as a “study of American Secretaries of State, comparing Henry Kissinger to Hillary Clinton.”
“All the media is Democrat and they love [Hillary],” Nakoula says matter-of-factly. “In November she will be the future president. I am telling you.” He’s no big fan of Clinton’s, though—he thinks she falsely framed him as having “blood” on his hands after Benghazi.
In fact, Nakoula feels his chef-d’oeuvre was pretty underappreciated by America as a whole. “I made the movie because I was stupid. Because I thought we are live in a free country. I was stupid and I did a mistake,” Nakoula tells me during our first meeting at the church. “I should have go to Russia, China, or back to Egypt to do this. But here in the United States we are not in a free country. So I did a mistake.”
“You regret making it?” I ask.
“That’s the truth,” he laughs. “Of course I’m sorry I make it... someday they let me think I am a killer... I have blood on my hands.
“I don’t like to go to jail again. Please, I don’t like to go to jail again,” he adds. “I don’t like to get killed. I don’t like to go to jail. Simple as that.”
A few minutes later, I ask Nakoula about his criminal convictions. “I’m a very bad person,” he laughs again. “I’m a very bad person.”
“You got into credit-card fraud, the gas-station price fixing, and the names you took from Social Security,” I clarify. “Not true,” he tells me.
“No Social Security fraud?” I ask, even though I’ve read the court documents myself. “No, no, no,” Nakoula says.
“They made that all up,” Wiley Drake tells me conspiratorially.
“There’s a criminal complaint that has you taking on various names and utilizing various Social Security [numbers],” I say.
“That is not accurate,” Nakoula says.
“That’s Obama,” Drake says. During another interview, the pastor assures me, “you got to understand just because it’s in court documents doesn’t make it the Bible.”
I’d seen Nakoula play this sort of cat-and-mouse game before—during our first meeting, the private one that Nakoula told me not to reveal to Wiley Drake. A few days prior, Nakoula had called me and pleaded in a panicky, high-pitched voice: “Can you meet me today because I need to talk to you.” Then he warned: “Please don’t tell anybody about this. Nobody must know.”
I drove to meet him at his former home at the end of a cul-de-sac in Cerritos. He’s not allowed to stay there because of the terms of his probation, but property records show it belongs to the man Nakoula calls his “son-in-law,” 26-year-old Mina Samy Imiel, who was at one point married to Nakoula’s daughter, Thoriya. The couple is embroiled in a civil lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court over a breach of contract involving the deed transfer of the Hawaiian Gardens Chevron gas station, which Thoriya at some point unloaded to Imiel.
When I arrived at the house—where Nakoula’s second wife, Olivia, and his youngest son Matthew still live—the filmmaker tried his best to convince me that the story about the film was not one worth pursuing, at least not while the probation officers still had their eyes on him. “Maybe later on, later on I call you—I have things to do, I have big things I can tell you about it. But for right now, please, please respect this. OK?
“Wiley Drake—I don’t like to tell him ‘no,’” he added. “The guy loves the press, he loves the media... That’s his life. But for me... I don’t like to hurt anyone. I like my name very low... My picture—don’t take it. If there’s a big article, please don’t mention my name. Everything is going to go down, I’m telling you.”
I pointed out to him that he was starring in online videos for Drake’s church and that his “Muhammad Movie Trailer” was still on YouTube and had racked up over 5 million views. At that point, the conversation descended into a bizarre game. First, Nakoula conceded that none of the Innocence of Muslims cast knew anything about the true meaning of the movie they were making. The next minute, he insisted that “Arabian actors”—“very low-class actors”—hijacked his footage, slapped the name Muhammad on lines that he’d meant to be totally innocuous (lines like “There is no God but George’s God”) and uploaded the film under his name. (Cast members have said none of the actors were actually Arab in origin and that they all had to wear cheap orange face-paint to seem “ethnic.”)
“I’m not the one who make the translation. It’s the wrong translation,” Nakoula told me. “The movie said that George is the main character. No Muslim called ‘George.’ Or ‘Helen.’ All of these are European names or American names... I never directly said Islam. I never said directly Muhammad.”
“Let me understand,” I said. “One of your actors took your film, changed the translation, uploaded it on their own?”
“One of the actors is an Arabian person. And they translated. They make [the trailer]... without my approval at all.”
“You don’t know which actor did this?”
“It was an Arabian one. I don’t know... This is very, very bad footage. This is not the movie. This is a very stupid footage. Just wait until I release the movie! I’m telling you!”
Naturally, this is not what Nakoula had previously admitted—under oath—in court during a 2014 deposition in a civil case against him by one of the Innocence of Muslims actresses, who was suing him over the misuse of her image. On the stand, Nakoula (under his new name, Mark Youssef) stated that he’d made his son Abanob upload the trailer onto YouTube. “Yes, yes, I am the one who told him to do this,” Nakoula testified. “I am the one, from A to Z… I am the one who wrote that movie. The idea—it was my idea. I am the one who collected and gathered money so that this movie comes to light and gets introduced to the whole world. So if there is any responsibility, I’ll take responsibility instead of anyone else.”
But now, as I stood before him in his former home, with white sheets covering every piece of living-room furniture and with the shades all drawn, he insisted it was an unknown Arab actor who was to blame for the “very ugly” Muhammad trailer.
Then he told me that he’d actually farmed out the screenplay to an “Oriental man” named “Lee,” who had supposedly served time with him in a Los Angeles detention center.
At another point, Nakoula seemed to contradict this, too, when he bragged that he could write the whole script over again, word for word, from memory. He also confided to me that he still had three copies of the original film—two in the U.S. and one overseas. (In the 2014 deposition, he’d told the court the same thing, saying he’d saved the full video on hard drives and given them to his father for safekeeping.)
Throughout his rambling diatribe, Nakoula kept promising me that I, and the cast members, and the American people, would soon understand the true meaning of the film. And despite his insistence that “George” was not supposed to be a stand-in for “Muhammad,” that meaning seemed to have a lot to do with Islam.
“These people’s ideology is out of their minds,” he told me, even as he insisted that the movie was “in favor of the Muslim people.” “They don’t want peace... God never said to kill the people; this is not God. This is the devil. That’s the meaning of the movie.
“That’s what I’m fighting for,” he repeated later in our conversation. “Against ISIS. This ideology.” When I reminded him that so-called Islamic State now widely known as ISIS wasn’t a known entity in the summer of 2011 when he made the movie, he waved me off. “I am a son of this culture. I grew up in this culture,” he said. “They call it death culture. If you need to drink milk you don’t go to buy the milk. No. You kill someone and go to heaven and drink the milk... I don’t know why the American doesn’t understand what I’m fighting for.
“You have the right culture,” he told me a few minutes later. “They have the death culture.”
Nakoula talked tough on Islam in private. But when I visited him for a second meeting with Wiley Drake, he seemed to hedge in front of the firebrand pastor. “You called Islam a cancer,” I reminded him. “I don’t tell you that. No comment,” Nakoula said reticently.
“I will tell you that,” Pastor Wiley Drake chimed in. “It’s a cancer.”
“You told me it’s a death culture,” I said. “No comment,” Nakoula replied.
“The bottom line is—what the movie has done in the truth is reveal how vicious and vile the Islamic people are,” Drake interrupted. “The media covered all that up. They couldn’t cover up the deaths because there were dead bodies. But the media covered up the fact that they were dragged by their penises in the streets and sodomized. That didn’t make the regular news.”
It was in this second interview that Nakoula’s demeanor changed. He was less like the meek and scared man of our first meeting and more aggressive, more surly. Maybe he was pissed off because I’d just revealed to Wiley Drake that we’d met in private, in order to clarify that I’d be using Nakoula’s quotes from that meeting. Or maybe he didn’t like that I kept questioning him about the film’s funding.
“How were you able to pay for it?” I asked him.
“I don’t tell you that. No comment,” Nakoula scowled.
“Family members of yours loaned you money and you’re paying that back?” I asked, repeating what he told the court in his 2014 deposition.
“They what?” Nakoula said.
“They loaned you money. Your sister gave you $10,000. Am I right?”
“Sir, sir, sir—this is bullshit,” Nakoula complained. “Whatever it is, is bullshit, OK?”
Seconds later, Nakoula was on his feet and shouting in my face, pointing his finger directly at me. “You think I will tell you the truth?” he bellowed.
“About the money? I will never tell you the truth!”
A few minutes later, Nakoula stormed out of the conversation and tossed the rest of his coffee from his mug onto the dirt—but he soon returned and pleaded with me, “Matthew, if you true journalist, you go to the target. Look at the target. What is the target of the movie? Forget who financed it. Who acted. What is the direction of the movie? This is good for the American people. This is the target—not ‘Who financed it? How much did it cost? How it financed?’”
“This is not useful for the American people.”
Who financed The Innocence of Muslims? It almost certainly wasn’t Nakoula all by himself. According to Nakoula’s own lawyer at his sentencing for the 2010 bank fraud case, the man was flat-out broke. “At the time he [committed bank fraud], he was out of work in the gas station industry... and he was working swap meets for a few dollars every weekend trying to support his family,” Nakoula’s lawyer told the court, adding that Nakoula’s eldest son Abonab was on a “full scholarship” at UC Santa Barbara and that Nakoula was the sole provider for his ailing father, his second wife, and his three children.
When you follow the money trail, Nakoula’s story gets even more bizarre.
The 2010 case was the one in which Nakoula had been busted for manufacturing fake credit cards and checks to scam banks out of $800,000. When the feds raided Nakoula’s home, they found hundreds of credit cards, over 60 different bank accounts, and a slew of fake birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and passports for his many aliases. They also discovered that one of Nakoula’s false names was Matthew K. Nekola, named after his first son, Matthew Kemal Nakoula. The boy had died at age 10 during a trip to Egypt with his father. The State Department says they have no record of Matthew Nakoula, but a family member confirmed for me that the child had been born at a Los Angeles hospital. Nakoula, who claims his son was 12, not 10, during that fatal trip, told me Matthew died from complications having to do with hydrocephalus. (The family member contests this and says there is still uncertainty surrounding Matthew’s death.) Years afterwards, Nakoula named another one of his sons “Matthew,” too (as well as a character in Innocence of Muslims), and then used his dead son’s name in his money scams.
All things considered, Nakoula got off with a pretty light sentence in the bank fraud case. The judge ordered him to pay back the $794,700 (and 57 cents) he’d stolen from six major American banks, and gave him 21 months in prison, followed by six months in a federal halfway house. He was released early but was riding out five years of probation when he tried playing Hollywood producer. Considering that this was Nakoula’s third conviction—he was nailed in 1987 for the gas-fixing scheme and in 1997 for peddling wholesale Sudafed with the intention to manufacture meth (for which he served 500 hours of community service)—the 2010 sentence was a mere slap on the wrist.
At the sentencing, Nakoula and his lawyer indicated that he’d made a deal with the feds in exchange for a lighter sentence—apparently, he gave them information on his business partner in the credit-card scam, a fraudster named Eiad Salameh.
“They make a deal with me, and they said, ‘OK, we may a deal for you. We let you go, we give you just only a short sentence, but you tell us all about these people,’” Nakoula said.
“He has implicated Mr. Salamay [sic],” Nakoula’s lawyer added, claiming Salameh (who also used the surname Daoud) was the guy who “walked away with 90 percent” of the proceeds from the fraud. “[Nakoula] was the guy, as Your Honor knows, [who] went in and cashed the checks and then the money would go to Mr. Salamay.
“We all know what’s gonna happen,” the lawyer went on. “Salamay is gonna get arrested some day and based on the debriefing information turned over, he is gonna enter a guilty plea, or if he doesn’t, then Mr. Nakoula is gonna be called on to testify at trial, at which point it’s too late to give him any other cooperation points.”
But Salameh was never arrested. He apparently fled the country and remains at large. Attempts to confirm Salameh’s whereabouts or outstanding warrants with various agencies, including the FBI, State Department, and the Los Angeles County DA, were unsuccessful.
A law enforcement source confirmed that Nakoula and Salameh’s ties go back “quite a ways.”
The source added that “[Salameh] was apparently a bad guy and Nakoula gave us information on him but nothing ever panned out with it… Last we heard is [Salameh] was living incognito in Canada.”
According to Nakoula, his former business associate—who also allegedly went by the name Erwin Salameh—was a scary man. “I am afraid of these people,” Nakoula told his lawyer, according to the federal court transcript from the hearing on June 24, 2010. “These people is Arabian and they can do anything.”
An “Arabian” was perhaps a strange choice for Nakoula in terms of a business partner. After all, as one of Nakoula’s family members told me, “he would say all kinds of shit about Muslims... he would talk down on them all the time.” And just a year after the bank fraud case, Nakoula was busy filming a movie that portrayed Muhammad as a prostitute-loving pedophile.
A man identifying himself as Salameh’s first cousin thinks the alliance between the two men was a strange one, too. Walid Shoebat is somewhat notorious on the Internet for his website where he rails about the Middle East’s holy rows and runs ads for persecuted Christians (he claims to be a convert from Islam who saw the light). Shoebat is not the most reliable source, but he insists that Eiad Salameh’s real last name is Shu’aybat and their whole extended family lives in Beit Sahour in Palestine’s Bethlehem district. “Eiad is very pro-Muslim, pro-Palestinian,” Shoebat told me. “And for him to be involved with a Copt like Sam Bacile—so he has a friend that’s a Copt who’s embezzling thousands of dollars? And he hates Copts.”
Maybe the allure of fast money was enough to smooth out religious differences. In any case, Nakoula indicated to the court that the relationship had turned sour after the feds caught wind of their scheme. During his 2014 deposition in the civil case against him by Innocence of Muslims actress Cindy Garcia, Nakoula testified that Salameh had called him on Sept. 14, 2012—three days after the Benghazi attacks and the day on which the website Smoking Gun published documents from Nakoula’s 2010 sentencing, which mention Salameh and the plea deal—and accused him of snitching to authorities. Salameh told him, “I can kill you,” Nakoula claimed. “He threatened me.”
Yet in December 2013—years after the movie was produced—a man named “Iyad Salameh Dawoud Alsho” deposited payments of $4,975 and $5,040 into Thoriya Nakoula’s bank account. The name sounds a lot like Eiad Salameh Daoud, although The Daily Beast could not confirm that Nakoula and Salameh have kept in touch.
When I spoke with Nakoula, he denied any kind of money transactions with, ties to, or even documented threats made against him by Salameh.
The information about the deposits was revealed during Cindy Garcia’s civil case, according to documents reviewed by The Daily Beast. These same documents also show a lot of money flowing through the bank accounts of Nakoula’s children—his “son-in-law” Mina, his daughter Thoriya (also called Youstina), and Abodab—during the months in which he was making the movie.
Tens of thousands of dollars—including large cash deposits—were moving into and out of the accounts in the summer of 2011. His daughter Thoriya, for instance, deposited $72,456 into her bank account in July 2011. She withdrew $31,433 of it that same month.
In August, she withdrew an additional $44,000, leaving her account balance at $743.36. Nakoula’s permit for the film was issued on Aug. 18, 2011.
Many of Thoriya’s deposits came from Mina Imiel, her “husband.” (The Daily Beast was unable to confirm whether the couple was ever legally married.) Thoriya was 18 years old at the time.
At the same time, payments from Thoriya’s account went to people directly involved in the production of the movie. In July, she wrote two checks for a total of $300 to Jimmy Israel, who said he was approached to read for a part in the film and then later hired on as a member of the production back in 2010 by longtime director pal Alan Roberts, according to a deposition he gave on July 10, 2014. He said that Nakoula (who went by Sam Bacile then) confided that he was dying of cancer and that Desert Warrior was going to be his final “political film” before passing away. (When I visited Nakoula this fall, he told me his health was “perfect.”)
Other checks for several hundred dollars appear to go to other individuals involved in the film’s production. Many of them are written around Aug. 10 and 11 of that year—just as the film was being produced.
Thoriya transferred another $43,000 to her brother Abanob’s account in July. Abanob, in turn, appears to have paid other actors and affiliates from his account. Abanob also paid $3,000 to Rene Velazut, owner of the Blue Cloud Ranch, where parts of the video were filmed. Another payee is credited with special-effects work for other projects on IMDB.
Nakoula claimed in our sit-downs that he made Innocence of Muslims to the tune of $40,000—thanks in part to a $10,000 loan from his sister, which he testified during his 2014 deposition that he had yet to pay back. “I owe her money,” he repeated. He also said he owed another Innocence investor named Farouk Carulos from Chino Hills, and said he took “like, $2,000 or $3,000, something like that,” from his son-in-law Mina Imiel.
In fact, bank records show Mina Imiel paid Nakoula’s children, Abanob and Thoriya, and Nakoula’s ex-wife Olivia Ibrahim, tens of thousands of dollars in 2011. The main actor “George/Muhammad” was cut at least two checks totaling just under $1,000 the same year. It is not clear if Imiel paid Nakoula himself any money.
Where did Mina get the money that was clearly going to fund Innocence of Muslims? On that question, the bank statements give us no clue.
As with many things having to do with Nakoula Basseley Nakoula—or Matthew Nekola, or Mark Yousef, or Mark Basseley Youssef, Ebrahem Fawzy Youssef, Sam Bacile, Ibrahim Basseley Youssef, Thomas J. Tanas, Ahmad Hamdy, Nicola Bacily, P.J. Tobacco, or any of his other protean names—the real story seems to slip away under layers of fictions and forgeries.
Nakoula Basseley Nakoula’s former employees on Innocence of Muslims have one thing in common: They would rather the story of the film stay buried for good.
“I was lied to about this, I was lied to about that,” said one member of the crew, who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity. “Everything that was told to me was fabricated.”
He said that if he’d known the movie was going to be a crude crucifixion of Islam, he would have run for the hills. “If a production like this had come through my doors I would be freaked out,” he said. “And then I probably would have called the cops.”
Some of the actors, like Cindy Garcia—who played the mother of a woman whored out to Muhammad—brought lawsuits against Nakoula after the YouTube trailer, with their faces but not their voices, appeared online. None of those lawsuits have gone anywhere. Almost everyone is working again, albeit nervously.
At least two former cast members refused to admit they had anything to do with the film when I contacted them—the director, Alan Roberts, and the actor who played Muhammad, whom The Daily Beast will not identify for safety reasons.
Roberts, a former softcore filmmaker (The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood, Young Lady Chatterley), was Nakoula’s stand-in director on set, according to actors and production hands. They called him Nakoula’s lackey, his fall guy, his scapegoat. When reached by phone, Roberts at first claimed he’d never heard of the film, in any of its titles, nor of anyone named Sam Bacile. But when I told him that I’d seen records of a check made out to him by Nakoula/Bacile’s daughter, Thoriya, Roberts changed his tune.
“Sam Bacile made this film,” Roberts told me, adding that he was “not scared of anything.” “He did more than write the film. He made the film.”
When I asked Roberts about Nakoula’s 2014 testimony—he swore in court that Roberts had helped him write the screenplay and register it with the WGA, and that Roberts had known of his secret intention to pillory the Prophet Muhammad—the director became more incensed. “He’s continuing his lying,” Roberts said. “He’s been in jail for doing all kinds of crimes and if you think his word has more meaning than my word, then I wish you well, that’s all I can say.”
It’s a sunny October day, and “Muhammad/George” is standing in dark socks and petting his growling husky on the terrace of his second-floor apartment. On the bookshelf behind him, I can spot Sun Tzu’s Art of War. He is calm and gentlemanly, even though he’s clearly not pleased to see me.
He will not confirm that he had anything to do with Innocence of Muslims, or Sam Bacile, or that he even knows what I’m talking about when I ask about the film—although Nakoula used his name in our discussions. “The situation you are describing is a very bad situation, obviously,” he says. “I have not been involved in this situation in any kind of public capacity. At all... that was for a very particular reason.
“You can write what you wish to write. Thus far I have completely remained a question mark in the eye of the public. That is the way I will remain. You have been a respectful individual. It is very dangerous, not just for me but for the people I care about.”
During our first hush-hush rendezvous, Nakoula had told me that the actor was hip to the film’s real purpose. Nakoula said he paid “George” more money in order to entice him to portray the Prophet. “Before he go in front of the camera, he gets money,” Nakoula said. “And I told him, ‘You will be famous, you will be famous.’”
In our second interview at the church, though, Nakoula mentioned that the actor didn’t know anything in advance. “He don’t know nothing,” Nakoula assured me. “Remember, these people they are not famous. They are unknown actors. When this happened all of a sudden they found themselves they’re in front of the camera and I hiding. The government hide me and the unknown people start to talking. They talk about anything. But the only person who has the truth is me.”
When I tell “George” about my conversations with Nakoula, he replies, “It sounds like an odd situation. This is what I’m hearing: that you have spoken numerous times with a liar [who] has made a number of claims about a number of things. They have proven to be false and you’re attempting to bring this story of a bad man to light, which is admirable.
“I think his record speaks for itself as far as his trustworthiness,” he added. “You can choose to believe what you will, but I will not discuss it.”
His final words, before he bids me good day during a follow-up phone call, are chilling. “I respect what you’re doing,” he says.
“And I hope you are successful in working towards unraveling a situation which clearly surrounds a very bad man… and a very dangerous situation.”
—with additional reporting by Kelly Weill