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Man behind anti-Islam film reportedly is Egyptian-born ex-con

Updated 1:36 a.m. ET: A 55-year-old Egypt-born Coptic Christian man living in the Los Angeles area was a key figure behind the anti-Islam film "Innocence of Muslims," blamed for sparking riots and protests in the Middle East, a federal law enforcement official told NBC News Thursday.

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who is on probation after being convicted of financial crimes, also was twice sentenced to jail on drug charges in the late 1990s, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office said.

Court records show that Nakoula was convicted on federal fraud charges in Los Angeles in 2010. Among the conditions of his probation, Nakoula was barred from using "any online service at any location" without the prior approval of his probation officer, according to a copy of court records in the case.

Actors and the assistant director of the film "Innocence of Muslims" told NBC News that the original spoken lines in the screenplay were dubbed over without their knowledge. NBC's Mike Taibbi reports.

 


Federal law enforcement officials are investigating whether Nakoula violated his probation on those fraud charges in his efforts to promote the movie, an official has confirmed to NBC News. 

The official emphasized that the current probe of Nakoula relates only to whether he violated his probation order — not into the content of the inflammatory movie.

"This is not an investigation of the film," the official said, or in any way intended to infringe on his "First Amendment rights." 

It was not immediately clear whether Nakoula was the target of a criminal investigation or part of the broader U.S. investigation into the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya during an attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi.

The crude and provocative anti-Islam video, blamed in part for sparking protests against U.S. diplomatic missions, was promoted by another Egyptian-born Coptic Christian named Morris Sadek on his website.

Copts make up a minority in Egypt where they have been victims of discrimination and sometimes attacks by Islamic extremists.

A trailer for the amateurish film, posted on YouTube in July and later reposted after being translated into Arabic, portrays Muhammad, the most important prophet in Islam, variously as a womanizer, a homosexual and a child abuser.

The translated clip, shown repeatedly on Egyptian television stations in recent weeks, was blamed for sparking protests across the Middle East and North Africa and was blamed for inciting an attacks on American diplomatic missions in several Middle Eastern cities.

U.S. officials are also investigating the possibility that the deadly Libya attack was planned in advance to coincide with the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States by Islamist terrorists.

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The mysterious origins of the film were the subject of intense reporting.

The Associated Press was first to report that it had reached the filmmaker who said he was an Israeli-American real estate developer from California who had made the movie by raising $5 million from wealthy Jewish donors. It gradually emerged that the man, who went by "Sam Bacile," was using an alias. The film, tied to U.S.-based Christians with extreme anti-Islam views, was produced on a low budget in southern California using actors who were apparently unaware of the film’s ultimate purpose.

Some of the information leading to Nakoula came from Morris Sadek, who is also an Egyptian-born American who had promoted the film on his website. Reporting in The Atlantic also connected the film to Steve Klein, a self-described militant Christian activist in Riverside, Calif., Klein indicated that the film maker contacted him as a consultant because Klein leads anti-Islam protests outside mosques and schools.

The 13-minute English-language trailer for the film was posted on YouTube in July by an account registered to a Sam Bacile. It shows the cast performing a wooden dialogue, with insults cast as revelations about Muhammad dubbed over the top.

The Quran forbids any depiction of Muhammad, and most Muslims regard any attempt to insult him as highly offensive. A Danish newspaper's 2005 publication of 12 caricatures of the prophet triggered riots in many Muslim countries.

Why films and cartoons of Muhammad spark violence

Actors: 'We were grossly misled'
Cindy Lee Garcia, of Bakersfield, California, who appears briefly in clips of the film posted online, said she answered a casting call last year to appear in a movie titled "Desert Warrior."

TODAY's Matt Lauer speaks with security analyst Michael Leiter about the likelihood that the attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya was a pre-meditated act by a group of al-Qaida sympathizers rather than a spontaneous uprising over an anti-Muslim Internet video.

"It looks so unreal to me, it's like nothing that we even filmed was there. There was all this weird stuff there," Garcia told Reuters in a phone interview. 

Garcia said the film was shot in the summer of 2011 inside a church near Los Angeles, with actors standing in front of a "green screen," which allows background images to be added in post-production. About 50 actors were involved, she said. 

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An expired casting notice at Backstage.com listed a film named "Desert Warrior" that it described as a low-budget "historical Arabian Desert adventure film." None of the characters were identified in the casting call as Muhammad. 

"They told me it was based on what it was like 2,000 years ago at the time of the Lord," Garcia said. "Like the time Christ was here."

A source close to the cast and crew of the film told NBC News that "Bacile" misled the actors and production crew.

"The entire crew and cast are extremely upset and feel taken advantage of by the producer," the source said. "We are 100 percent not behind this film and were grossly misled about its intent and purpose. We are shocked by the drastic rewrites of the script and lies that were told to all involved. We are deeply saddened by the tragedies that have occurred."

 

Zoubeir Souissi / Reuters

The U.S. Ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed after protesters angry over a film that ridiculed Islam's Prophet Muhammad stormed the U.S. consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, as protests spread across the region.

 

Nakoula's criminal background is the subject of mounting scrutiny in the wake of reports linking him to the anti-Islam movie.

In the late 1990s he was convicted on intent to manufacture methamphetamine, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office confirmed.

After his conviction, Nakoula was sentenced to one year in jail — and then resentenced for another one year term in April 2002 after violating his probation. That was seven years before Nakoula was arrested again on federal bank fraud charges involving alleged identity theft. After pleading no contest, he was convicted in federal court in June 2010,  sentenced to 21 months in federal prison and ordered to pay $794,700 in restitution.

Court records show that in the federal identify theft case against him, Nakoula used multiple aliases, including "Youseff M. Basseley" and "Niolca Bacily," to commit bank fraud.

Nakoula told the AP he was a Coptic Christian. Although denying he was "Bacile," Nakoula was quoted as saying the film's director supporting the concerns of Christian Coptics.

Meanwhile, a film industry spokesman confirmed that a Duarte, California-based evangelical Christian group called "Media for Christ" received a one day permit last year to make the film, a Los Angeles film official confirms to NBC News.

Media for Christ runs an Arabic language satellite TV station called "Way TV," according to the group's tax returns.

"The Way TV provides its audience with prayers, sermons, and hymns 24/7 to prepare them for Christ's happy and long awaited second coming," the tax returns state.

Media for Christ applied for and received the permit to make the film in Aug. 2011, listing the title then as "Desert Warriors," said a spokesman for Film LA, a non-profit that coordinates the awarding for film permits under contracts with the city and county of Los Angeles.

The listed producer on the film was "Sam Bossil," but LA Film has no other information about him, the spokesman said. A woman who answered the phone at Media for Christ Thursday hung up the phone Thursday.

Police patrolled the cul-de-sac in suburban Cerritos, Calif., where Nakoula is believed to live, NBCLosAngeles.com reported. Officers said the resident of the home asked for security after media descended on the two-story home.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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