UPDATED: Friday, Sept. 14, 2 p.m.
An Internet clip of an amateurish, virulently anti-Muslim film called Innocence of Muslims is being identified as one of the flash points behind the anti-U.S. demonstrations in the Middle East that led to the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others in Benghazi, Libya, earlier this week. As journalists work to uncover more details about the makers of the film, here’s what we know about the cast of characters so far:
In July, a person working under this pseudonym posted a 14-minute trailer for Innocence of Muslims on YouTube. It was widely thought to be the filmmaker’s real name, after a man identifying himself as Sam Bacile spoke to both the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. Bacile identified himself as a California-based real estate developer, either 52 or 56 years old, and claimed he was both the writer and director of the film.
“Islam is a cancer,” he repeated to both publications. He said he was an Israeli American who filmed and produced the two-hour movie last year in California. Funding for the movie, he explained, came from 100 Jewish donors, who pitched in a total of $5 million.
Public-records searches by TIME and others have yielded nothing tangible about a Sam Bacile in California, leading many to conclude that the name is a pseudonym. The Israeli government said it has no record of Bacile as a citizen. Steve Klein (see below), a backer and purported consultant on the film, told the Atlantic he was neither Israeli nor Jewish. “This guy is totally anonymous. At this point, no one can confirm he holds Israeli citizenship, and even if he did, we are not involved,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told CNN.
The film allegedly calls the holy Muslim Prophet Muhammad a fraud and shows him engaged in sex acts. Muslims believe it’s inappropriate to depict the Prophet under any circumstances, especially insulting ones. (In 2005, a Danish newspaper published caricatures of Muhammad that incited riots in many Middle Eastern nations.) But the film only started riling tempers in the Middle East last week, after the Sam Bacile YouTube account posted an Arabic translation of the Innocence of Muslims film.
According to law-enforcement officials on Thursday, Nakoula has been confirmed as the person behind the making of Innocence of Muslims. Tracked down Wednesday at his Los Angeles–area home by the Associated Press, the man identified himself as Nakoula Nakoula. When the Associated Press asked to see his driver’s license for confirmation, Nakoula held his thumb over his middle name, Basseley — phonetically similar to the Bacile pseudonym.
During the interview, Nakoula denied having any connection to or even knowing Bacile, explaining instead that he only managed logistics for the film. But the Associated Press discovered that the cell-phone number used by the man who identified himself as Bacile to the press is registered to the same address where a reporter found Nakoula. His other aliases, according to federal court papers, include Nicola Bacily and Erwin Salameh. Other times he’s used the first name Abanob, according to an actor who worked on the film, who told BuzzFeed his checks were signed with that name. It’s quite possibly his son’s name, though, which Nakoula was using as cover.
Nakoula has a checkered history with the law. According to federal attorneys, he was involved in a fraud scheme in which he would set up fake bank accounts using stolen Social Security numbers. He would then withdraw money from the accounts and relocate it to other bogus accounts.
In 2010 he was charged with bank fraud, to which he pleaded no contest and was ordered to pay $790,000. He was sentenced to 21 months in a federal prison and banned from using computers or the Internet for five years.
The Daily Beast discovered Friday that Nakoula was previously arrested in 1997 and charged with the intent to manufacture meth. After pleading guilty, he served a year in L.A. County Jail and served three years of probation upon release. But when he violated that probation in 2002, he was sent to jail for another year.
In light of the protests sweeping the Middle East that have been blamed on the film, ABC is reporting that police were summoned Nakoula’s home in Cerritos, Calif., to provide extra protection. The Daily Mail reports that he shares the home southeast of the city of Los Angeles with his wife and three children.
Claiming that he was a script consultant on Innocence of Muslims, Klein says he does not know Bacile’s real name, but says he was asked by the mysterious filmmaker for his help in making the movie. It is unclear why Bacile supposedly sought him out, but it could possibly be because of his affiliation with Christian extremist groups in Southern California.
Describing himself as a Vietnam veteran, Klein founded Courageous Christians United, an anti-Mormon, anti-Muslim and anti-Jehovah’s Witness organization in 1977. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) says he now heads a group called Concerned Citizens for the First Amendment and lists it as a hate group. It says Klein has a long history with far-right extremist groups. In an interview with the Atlantic, he boasted of trying to hunt terrorists: “After 9/11, I went out to look for terror cells in California and found them, piece of cake. Sam found out about me. The Middle East Christian and Jewish communities trust me.”
The SPLC website quotes Klein as believing that the U.S. is “at war” with Muslims. He said Islam’s followers are “a cancer that WILL attack us and KILL as many as they can to further the Islamic doctrine of Shari‘a law. They behead, cut off limbs, stone people to death and worse. Beware, there IS a holy war coming. The signs are everywhere if you care to look and listen.”
He told the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times that the film was produced by 15 people who hailed from the Middle East who became naturalized Americans. He said the movie was filmed in 2012 but would not reveal the identity of any crew or production locations. He also said the film was premiered at the Vine Theater in Hollywood. The idea, he said, was to draw out Islamists in Southern California.
“We passed out flyers at mosques around California where we knew there was a small percentage of terrorists. And the idea was to locate … those folks who believed Osama bin Laden was a great guy and to try to get them to come to the movie.”
An actress from Bakersfield, Calif., who had a small role in the film, Garcia told Gawker that the script she and the other actors were given was for a film called Desert Warrior. There was never any indication that it would be an offensive film: the script never even mentioned Muhammad, she said, claiming that the Prophet of Islam’s name and other religious references were dubbed in during postproduction. The main character’s name was Master George, and Garcia played a woman giving her young daughter to the Prophet to marry. “I had nothing to do really with anything,” she told Gawker. “Now we have people dead because of a movie I was in. It makes me sick.”
According to the casting notice that Garcia answered, Desert Warrior, described as a “historical desert drama set in Middle East,” was set to be directed by Alan Roberts. It was scheduled to be shot over a three-week period in August 2011 in Los Angeles, with 59 actors and about 45 people behind the camera. Actors were offered no pay, the ad said.
Garcia told Gawker that she did meet Nakoula, the alleged director, on set; Nakoula said he was Egyptian, not Israeli. The white-haired man spoke Arabic to several others associated with the production. “He was just really mellow. He was just sitting there and he wanted certain points to be made,” she said.
Another actor in Innocence of Muslims, Dax is recognizable by his shaved head covered mostly in tattoos. He acknowledged to entertainment blog Joe My God that he did appear in the film but says he was also duped — he says he auditioned for the movie Desert Storm and that his character was completely different from what has appeared in the YouTube trailer.
“My character was called Sampson on the paper with a few lines I got each day upon arriving on set. We never saw a full script or any lines after the day we shot them,” Dax wrote in an e-mail to the blog, which described him as a gay porn actor. “Many questions were asked regarding absurdity of lines and situations. Sam the producer who I believed to be, but not certain as Egyptian. His reply would always to work with what we were given as he wrote the script.”
He says the voice-overs were “dubious” and is skeptical that the voice he heard in the clip he saw was actually his.
Listed as the director on the casting notice, Alan Roberts may or may not be a pseudonym. But focus has shifted to Roberts after Nakoula — presumably the same person as Sam Bacile — refused to admit he was the director. Gawker interviewed Eric Moers, hired as a grip and electrician for the Desert Warrior film, who laid out the on-set politics: “Alan was working under Sam, sort of,” he said. “But Alan was directing the movie, there was no question about it.” Both Moers and Dax described the film’s director as a 50ish white male, and a search of IMDB yields one Alan Roberts fitting the billing. According to the site, Roberts has directed nine films, most recently the 1994 B-movie Save Me. VICE has traced the Alan Roberts name to a man named Robert Brownell, whom they say purchased pre-production services related to the Desert Warrior film in 2009 and 2011. According to their records, Robert Brownell also goes by the name Robert Alan Brown, which contains unmistakable similarities to the Alan Roberts identity.
But the biggest problem to Moers wasn’t the director’s name, it was his skill: “He was a directorial hack, he didn’t know basic things,” Moer said.
Israel was also mentioned in the pre-production documents obtained by VICE. He said he did indeed work on the film, first trying out for a role but later settling for a job as a producer. He explained that he was a former screenplay writer looking for a gig, and he didn’t spend very much time working on Desert Warrior. “I worked for two days going over the script,” he told BuzzFeed, “finding the casting venue, and putting the ad in Backstage, and trying to find a SAG deal.” He stepped in to fill the production role after a producer dropped out, “but the original producer came back.”
The quality of the film didn’t match the purported amount of money spent, Israel said, because Bacile — the only name by which he knew the director — didn’t raise anywhere near $5 million. “Sam himself was the person who put up the money, maybe $90,000,” he told VICE. Israel claims that Bacile still owes him money for his work on the film.
A small movie house on Hollywood Boulevard, the Vine supposedly screened the Innocence of Muslims film in late June. At the time, according to the Daily Beast, it may have been known as Innocence of Bin Laden. An employee, who didn’t want to be identified, told the Associated Press that the movie had indeed run there, to a mostly empty theater. A man identified only as Sam had asked them to show it. According to the Daily Beast, police officers were sent to monitor the theater. “You don’t know who your audience is going to be,” an official said. “People get riled up.” The unnamed law officer told the Daily Beast that during the premiere, they also monitored a man they were told was the director. Nakoula, the source said, sat anxiously at a restaurant across the street, focused on the theater entrance. The Associated Press noted the theater was padlocked upon a visit Wednesday.
Already infamous for his Koran-burning stunts and far-right sentiments, Jones heads the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla. He is known for his vocal anti-Muslim views and is a professed supporter of Innocence of Muslims, although there is no evidence to suggest he was a financial backer or part of its production. He did, however, screen its trailer on Tuesday, the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, for audience attending his International Judge Muhammad Day.
In a statement sent to TIME, Jones said, “We have been contacted by the producer of the film to help distribute it.”
Jones’ media stunts have had far-reaching consequences in the past. In 2010 he threatened to burn a copy of the Koran over plans to build a Muslim cultural center near the site of the World Trade Center, bringing international attention to his obscure evangelical ministry. He stopped the action after pleas from several senior officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Later, he did it anyway, inciting riots in Afghanistan that resulted in 11 deaths.
Although Jones did not claim any credit for making the film, he did praise it in his statement:
“The film is not intended to insult the Muslim community, but it is intended to reveal truths about Muhammad that are possibly not widely known … the recent outbreak of violence and deaths is not because of the film, it is not because of the activities that we have done and that we will continue to do.”
A Coptic Christian activist, Sadek posted the trailer of the film on his blog. The Egyptian activist, based in Washington, D.C., told the Associated Press he showed the video because it “explains the problems of the Copts who suffer from Muslims.” Sadek, an ally of Pastor Jones, was planning to spread the film’s message and is being called responsible for helping to get the film on Egyptian television stations. Sadek is an anti-Islamic activist and a primary member of the National American Coptic Assembly. Speaking to Reuters, he explained his objective in promoting the film was to call attention to the plight of Christians who account for 10% of Egypt’s population. After he began promoting the clips on his website, the Associated Press reports, Egyptians started planning the mass demonstration at the U.S. embassy in Cairo. But the protests became more prolific and widely known after the clips were aired on Sheik Khaled Abdalla’s Egyptian television show.
A Los Angeles–based blogger, Walsh is credited with sounding the alarm about the potential religious hatred in the film. In June, a few days before the movie was set to be shown at the Vine Theater, Walsh blogged ominously about the film’s alarming title, which, at the time, was Innocence of Bin Laden. “ARE MILITANT ISLAMISTS ABOUT TO GATHER ON HOLLYWOOD BLVD.?” Walsh wrote (in all caps), adding details about the film he’d cobbled together from the theater. The day before the screening, he even spoke before the Los Angeles city council about the film, Talking Points Memo reports. At the meeting, he noted his religious concerns about the film, but council members stayed silent. Later, he says, he tried to pressure the Anti-Defamation League into investigating the film and its makers. Strangely, he received an e-mail on June 30 saying the screening had been canceled. But the theater affirms that the movie did play — though to a mostly empty theater.
Sheik Khaled Abdalla
A fiery Egyptian TV host on the Islamist satellite TV channel al-Nas, Abdalla is reported to have set off the outrage when he broadcast a clip of the movie trailer that showed the man playing Muhammad. After he showed the video on Sept. 8, the Atlantic Wire reports, online views of the video soared. According to the Guardian, Abdalla drums up outrage among his audience by homing in on perceived threats to Islam and intensifying them.