As the White House and congressional leaders condemned the assaults on U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya and sent Marines to Tripoli, the mystery deepened over who is responsible for the anti-Muhammad film trailer “The Innocence of Muslims.”
The producer initially claimed to be Sam Bacile, an Israeli Jew, in interviews he gave to the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press from an undisclosed California location.
But Steve Klein, who has been described in press accounts as a consultant on the film, told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that Bacile is not Israeli and is most likely not Jewish. The name, Klein said, is a pseudonym.
A Coptic Christian named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, told the AP in an interview outside Los Angeles that he was manager for the company that produced “Innocence of Muslims.” Though he denied being the film’s director, the similarity of his middle name led to speculation that he was in fact the filmmaker. He said the director supported the concerns of Christian Copts about their treatment by Muslims.
“I would suspect this is a disinformation campaign,” Klein told Goldberg.
Klein is a Christian activist in Riverside, Calif., Goldberg wrote, although the Riverside Press Enterprise said that he was a Hemet, Calif., insurance salesman with ties to radical right wing groups.
A trailer for Bacile’s “Innocence of Muslims,” dubbed into Arabic and posted on YouTube, was initially presumed to be the spark for the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi by protesters angry over the film that ridicules Islam’s prophet Muhammad, leading to the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three security guards. In Cairo, protesters climbed the walls of the U.S. Embassy, pulling down the American flag and replacing it with a black Islamist banner.
But the motivations behind the attacks are coming in to question, with CNN quoting U.S. officials who believe the attacks were planned before the protests, which may have been used as a diversion.
Meanwhile, the protests and attacks have put a focus on YouTube and whether it should continue to display the trailer for the film. The company said in a statement, “We work hard to create a community everyone can enjoy and which also enables people to express different opinions. This can be a challenge because what’s OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere. This video — which is widely available on the Web — is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube. However, given the very difficult situation in Libya and Egypt, we have temporarily restricted access in both countries. Our hearts are with the families of the people murdered in yesterday’s attack in Libya.”
And Israel disavowed knowledge of the purported filmmaker. “We don’t know who this Bacile guy is. There’s no trace of him in official registries,” Yigal Palmor, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, told Variety . “No one has heard of him, either in the film industry or elsewhere.”
“This film has nothing to do with us, and we clearly reject any manifestation of crude intolerance such as this piece, just as we condemn the unwarranted outburst of bloody violence that takes this film as its pretext,” Palmor added.
Across the industry, reps for orgs like the Independent Film & Television Alliance and the Intl. Documentary Assn. said they had no knowledge of Bacile. In Toronto, where many in the industry are gathered for the annual film festival, filmmakers were reluctant to comment on the attacks given the incendiary nature of the events.
The movie’s amateurish trailer has the air of a skit, with actors portraying Muhammad and his followers and casting the prophet as a philanderer. Actors, who were recruited through an ad in Backstage magazine for a film supposedly named “Desert Warrior,” told CNN “they are not happy with the film and were misled by the producer.”
“We are shocked by the drastic rewrites of the script and lies that were told to all involved,” the statement said. The actors claimed that their dialogue was redubbed.
Meanwhile, the violence has ignited fears that there will be further censorship in Islamic media.
“From my personal point of view, we can’t be dealing with this movie in such a violent way, even if it does make fun of Muslim religion,” Arab film analyst Alaa Karkouti, who runs Cairo-based film marketing firm Mad Solutions, commented to Variety .
Karkouti and several other prominent members of Cairo’s film and TV community, who spoke on background but would not be quoted, were also quick to point out the manipulative aspect of the mayhem.
“Let’s not forget that this film is old,” said Karkouti. “Why is it being bandied in the (Egyptian) media now? Why did this break out on Sept. 11?”
The perception among those interviewed is that the timing is linked to the upcoming U.S. elections.
The dubbed-into-Arabic 14-minute trailer, depicting Muhammad having sex and calling for massacres, surfaced in the Egyptian media in the past few days, even though at least parts of the trailer had been available on YouTube for two months. The two-hour movie was said to have been completed in 2011 and screened earlier this year in a Hollywood theater, although even those details are vague.
(The Associated Press and Debra Kamin in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.)