When the police pulled Nakoula Basseley Nakoula over outside Los Angeles on March 27, 1997, he had $45,000 in hundreds and twenties in a paper lunch bag on the seat beside him.
Fifteen years would pass before Nakoula would become known as the man who helped set the Mideast afire with an anti-Muslim film trailer. On this night, though, he was the subject of a drug investigation, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had been watching him as he drove a U-Haul rental truck from a storage facility in Downey to a Super 7 liquor store. There, he picked up a liquor store employee named Khaled Abraham. They proceeded to Abraham’s house in Lake Elsinore.
At the house, Nakoula and the others unloaded 30 boxes of pseudoephedrine, a prime ingredient of methamphetamine. Another 99 cases were found at the storage facility.
After his arrest, Nakoula insisted he had only been doing the bidding of his employer, Mansour Barsoum, whom he described as the owner of a firm called ABC Trading. The police determined that the storage unit had indeed been rented under the name Barsoum, but the manager identified Nakoula as the person who actually had rented it.
The police were unable to find any trace of Mansour or ABC Trading, though Nakoula was discovered to have receipts from a Santa Monica firm called M&A for the purchase of some $150,000 of pseudoephedrine pills. The authorities also could not find a business license for M&A Trading, but a federal DEA agent were able to trace a lot number on a March 3, 1997, receipt to pills recovered at an illegal meth lab.
Nakoula sought to explain his boss’s absence by saying, “Mansour had left for Egypt.” Nakoula’s lawyer subsequently produced a copy of an Egyptian passport for a man of that name, but the police do not seem to have been convinced.
Nakoula nonetheless only spent just two days in jail, getting off with three years’ probation when he could have gotten hard time.
“Sounds like he’s an informant,” observes a law-enforcement official familiar such matters, though not with the particulars of this case.
The bust came around the time the feds were launching Operation Mountain Express, which would become a huge investigation into pseudoephedrine-dealing involving numerous people of a Middle Eastern background. The authorities initially insisted there were no links to terrorism, but suddenly switched and decided that a chunk of the money was going to Hizbullah.
“I’m satisfied that portions of the drug sales have moved back to the Middle East and portions of that are going to support terrorist organizations,” said then DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson.
Nakoula’s lawyer is not returning phone calls or responding to emails, but it seems reasonable to wonder if Nakoula’s case was not part of this investigation. One question that bears asking is whether Nakoula helped persuade the feds that the drug money was going to Muslim extremists. He is a Coptic Christian.
Meanwhile, the supposed employer, Mansour Barsoum, remained as much a mystery as the supposed movie producer, Sam Bacile, whom Nakoula now insists was the man who actually made the incendiary anti-Muslim movie that aroused such fury in the Mideast. The authorities say they can find no trace of this man who purportedly triggered the murders of Americans in the U.S. consulate in Libya on the 11th anniversary of 9/11.
Just as he said back in 1997 that he was only moving money and drugs for his boss, the now 54-year-old Nakoula is insisting he was just a functionary in the production of a film that seems intended to incite Muslim extremists to violence.
As if to ensure continued fury, Nakoula has said the mysterious Sam Bacile is an Israeli Jew and that the film was financed by $5 million from Jewish backers. There are no laws against this, even when it results in the deaths of people who represent America’s very best, among them former SEAL Glen Doherty and U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, whose mother flew from California to Washington yesterday to bring his body home. She is a retired symphony cellists and her son had always seemed to hear the music of the human heart even amid gunfire.
It may be possible for authorities to least arrest Nakoula for violating the terms of his probation following a subsequent, 2009 criminal case in which he pleaded guilty to federal charges of identity theft and bank fraud so extensive as to require $794,700.57 in restitution. He was sentenced to a relatively lenient 21 months in prison, followed by five years’ probation, which among other things prohibits him from using computers or in any other way accessing the Internet without explicit permission.
The YouTube movie trailer that set the Mideast ablaze was posted by someone identifying himself as Sam Bacile. The feds need only prove that the mysterious producer is in fact Nakoula, and they can toss him back in jail for four years.
In the court file for the second case, Indictment CR09-00617, the records regarding the plea deal are sealed. That can be construed as another indication that Nakoula had previously been an informant. His lawyer is not responding to calls or emails regarding this, either.
The actual charges remain public. Nakoula engaged in what is known as “synthetic identify theft,” meaning he used real Social Security numbers but fake names to open a dizzying number of accounts at numerous banks. He had 14 accounts at Wells Fargo alone, shifting money from one to another to build up credit lines and then maxing them out. His many aliases ranged from Ahmad Hamdy to PJ Tobacco to Robert Bacily, which is not so very different from Sam Bacile. The one common denominator with the names was Nakoula’s face in the ATM’s camera when there was a withdrawal from the corresponding account.
In searching his household garbage, postal inspectors found a WAMU gold credit card in the name of Nicola Bacily and a Bank of America platinum check card in the name of Kritbag Difrat. WAMU happened to have been his biggest creditor when he filed for bankruptcy in 2000, stating in papers at the time that he was a $2,800-a-month service employee with Mobil. The vehicles he now owned included a silver 4-door Mercedes that was actually registered in his name.
A silver Mercedes was parked in the driveway of his suburban Cerritos home yesterday. He seems to be as fond of easy money as he is of lies and fake names. He does not immediately strike an observer as somebody who acts of out of principle more knowing than maybe hate.
One fact established by Nakoula’s own admission is that a convicted drug-dealing con man helped set in motion events that resulted in the death of people who were champions against religious intolerance and worked to make their names the realest of synonyms for goodness and truth.