Updated 5:34 pm.
He went by many names, the man who helped produce “The Innocence of Muslims,” the inflammatory video now roiling the Middle East: Matthew Nekola; Ahmed Hamdy; Amal Nada; Daniel K. Caresman; Kritbag Difrat; Sobhi Bushra; Robert Bacily; Nicola Bacily; Thomas J. Tanas; Erwin Salameh; Mark Basseley Youssef; Yousseff M. Basseley; Malid Ahlawi; even P.J. Tobacco.
But his real name — the one he used when he was sent to prison for bank fraud — was Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. His habit of adopting other identities earned him a 21-month sentence in federal prison. During 2008 and 2009, court documents reviewed by Danger Room (.pdf) and embedded below show that Nakoula again and again opened bank accounts with fake names and stolen social security numbers. Then Nakoula would deposit bogus checks into the new accounts and withdraw money before the checks bounced. The scheme worked for more than a year, until he was indicted in June of 2009. Eventually, he was ordered to stay off of the internet unless he got his probation officer’s permission, and pay a $794,700 fine.
Yet Nakoula’s fakery apparently continued. Actors hired to perform in “Innocence” say they had no idea the movie they were making would be so deliberately offensive to Muslims; in fact, many of the most provocative lines were overdubbed after the fact. Basseley swears he’s not “Sam Bacile,” the director and writer of the movie; he just happens to have a similar name, and coincidentally was found at the address tied to the cellphone of “Bacile.”
This is the man whose work is now at the center of one of the gravest diplomatic disasters in recent memory, whose video is at least partially responsible for attacks that claimed the lives of four U.S. employees, including the American ambassador to Libya. It shows how U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century is at risk of being derailed by a single, pseudonymous fraudster. In the 1990s, Marine Gen. Charles Krulak famously coined the phrase “The Strategic Corporal” to describe how a 19-year old Leatherneck’s actions, broadcast worldwide, could derail U.S. interests. Meet Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the Strategic Con Man.
Nakoula first came to federal agents’ attention in January of 2009. That’s when Joe Takai, a fraud investigator at the Capital One Bank, contacted his counterpart at Wells Fargo Bank, Trang Ha, who reached out to the United States Postal Inspector Service. Ha told the feds this was a case of synthetic identity fraud, and gave postal inspectors a stack of bank statements, surveillance photos tied to 11 suspicious social security numbers to prove it.
“Synthetic identity fraud is defined as the application for credit card and bank accounts … using a fictitious name and a true SSN (social security number), which is in fact issued to a name other than the one used in the application. Once credit is issued using the combination of real and fictitious identifying information, a new identity is established,” explains a June 16 2009 criminal complaint against Nakoula, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles County.
Surveillance video taken from Wells Fargo ATMs showed that the same person was accessing the accounts of “Ahmed Hamdy” and “Thomas J. Tanas.” The accounts were opened in the spring of 2008, using the social security numbers of a 46-year-old man and a 6-year-old child. Until October, the accounts drew no attention, keeping up a positive balance thanks to a series of deposits from outside banks and credit cards. Then, over the course of October, 11 credit card convenience checks, each just under $2,000, were deposited into the Tanas and Hamdy accounts. All of the checks bounced. By the end of the month, the two accounts were collectively overdrawn by nearly $12,000.
When “Hamdy” applied for an account, he used an address also belonging to a Nakloula Basseley Nakoula. (Credit card bills belonging to a “P.J. Tobacco” were also sent there.) Postal inspectors pulled up Nakoula’s driver’s license photo, and noticed that he looked an awful lot like the one taking money out of the Hamdy and Tanas accounts.
Postal inspectors also noticed that “Tanas” was depositing checks into Washington Mutual accounts belonging to a “Nicola Bacily” and a “Erwin Salameh.” Five different surveillance videos showed Nakoula making those deposits at banks scattered around Los Angeles and Orange counties.
The chase continued, with more interlocking accounts uncovered. Eventually, on June 18, 2009, Nakoula was indicted on five counts of fraud. But his mischief, in turns out, was far from over.
In July of 2011 — apparently a month after he got out of jail — Nakoula started casting actors for “Innocence.” At the time, it was titled “Desert Warriors,” or possibly “Desert Storm.” Ostensibly, the film was about life in the Middle East of long ago.
“i can tell you i auditioned for a movie called Desert Storm that was about Ancient Warriors. 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. Many questions were asked regarding absurdity of lines and situations,” Tim Dax, an occasional erotic film actor and star of such movies as “Mr. Bricks: A Heavy Metal Murder Musical,” tells the website Joe.My.God.
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. The clip that I saw part of today for the first time is questionable as to being my voice. The voice over work is dubious at best. a week and a half of work, 75 bucks a day & lunch. ; )
Jimmy Israel, who tried out for a part in the movie and later worked on the production, remembers things differently. According to Israel, the filmmakers worked on the script for “about 10 months. And it was still terrible.”
“The spine of its was about the persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt,” Israel tells Danger Room. The man Israel knew as Sam Bacile “obviously feels very persecuted by Muslims because he is a Copt.”
“He seemed like a nice man, not an ogre,” Israel adds. “Sam said that he was a cancer victim and was gonna die. It gave us a lot of sympathy for him.”
L.A.-based actress Cindy Garcia, who played a role as the mother in the video, listed a “Sam Bassiel” as the film’s producer on her resume. Crew member Jimmy Israel was given the name “Abnob Nakoula Basseley” for registration with the Screen Actors Guild. A company behind the casting, called Pharaoh Voice, Inc., listed a “Youssef M. Basseley” as its president. Another name, “Alan Roberts,” was listed as director in the casting call.
Nakoula told the Associated Press he managed a company that produced the video, but has since denied any involvement in the film. “I’m a gas station worker, I didn’t work on it, I know nothing about it. They need to blame someone,” Nakoula later told the Telegraph during an interview outside his Los Angeles home. But on Thursday, federal law enforcement officials said that Nakoula was in fact Bacile. Reporters also noted a resemblance between Nakoula’s front door and a chandelier inside his home to a door and chandelier seen in the film. Filming also reportedly took place at the Blue Cloud Movie Ranch in Santa Clarita, California. Christian non-profit group Media For Christ — based in the L.A. suburb of Duarte — helped produce the film, according to Duarte’s city manager.
Adding onto the false identities, a man named “Sam Bacile” reportedly told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that he is a 52-year-old Israeli-born real-estate developer who raised $5 million from Jewish donors to make the movie. These claims are totally bogus. Israel officials found no evidence of an Israeli Sam Bacile. Nor is there anyone with the name holding a real estate license in California. The multi-million dollar financing claim has also stretched credulity owing to the film’s disastrously cheap, sub-pornographic production values.
“All these Middle Eastern folks I work with have pseudonyms. I doubt he’s Jewish. I would suspect this is a disinformation campaign,” Steve Klein, a 61-year-old Christian activist who also worked as a consultant for the movie, told The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg. Klein said about 15 people were involved in making the film, all American citizens, but coming from countries including Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Egypt and Turkey, and “the vast majority are Evangelical,” Klein said.
But why Nakoula brought Klein into the production is another mystery. Most likely, it was due to Klein’s background. A 61-year-old former Marine who works in the insurance business, Klein founded the anti-abortion and anti-Islamic group Courageous Christians United, and has helped train paramilitary militias at a church in California, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Klein also worked at the Duarte studio on a TV show for Arabic Christian station The Way TV. He reportedly said a man named “Bacile” approached him because of his involvement in protests at mosques. The director also told Klein the film could help attact and expose “Muslim Brotherhood” cells operating in California.
Nor was Klein the only activist to have been approached. The anti-Islam Florida pastor, Terry Jones, told reporters he was approached by “Bacile,” and has since come out in support of the video. Washington-based Coptic Christian activist Morris Sadek also promoted the film on his website. Even weirder, the YouTube account that hosts the film uses the name “sam bacile,” and had favorited a video uploaded by the ultra-right Egyptian Al-Nour Party.
In late June, Nakoula’s video premiered at a run-down indie theater in West Hollywood, disappeared, and then re-emerged on the internet. But the looming question is why Nakoula made it in the first place. If it was a deliberate attempt to incite violence in the Middle East, then he was sadly successful. What wasn’t successful were the poor attempts at using fraudulent names to cover his tracks.