By EILEEN SULLIVAN and STEPHEN BRAUN
WASHINGTON (AP) - Federal authorities have identified a Coptic Christian in southern California who is on probation after his conviction for financial crimes as the key figure behind the anti-Muslim film that ignited mob violence against U.S. embassies across the Mideast, a U.S. law enforcement official told The Associated Press on Thursday.
The official said authorities had concluded that Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, was behind "Innocence of Muslims," a film that denigrated Islam and the prophet Muhammad and sparked protests earlier this week in Egypt, Libya and most recently in Yemen. It was not immediately clear whether Nakoula was the target of a criminal investigation or part of the broader investigation into the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya during a terrorist attack.
Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed Thursday that Justice Department officials were investigating the deaths, which occurred during an attack on the American mission in Benghazi.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation, said Nakoula was connected to the persona of Sam Bacile, a man who initially told the AP he was the film's writer and director. But Bacile turned out to be a false identity, and the AP traced a cellphone number Bacile used to a southern California house where it located and interviewed Nakoula.
Bacile initially told AP he was Jewish and Israeli, although Israeli officials said they had no records of such a citizen. Others involved in the film said his statements were contrived, as evidence mounted that the film's key player was a Coptic Christian with a checkered past.
Nakoula told the AP in an interview outside Los Angeles on Wednesday that he managed logistics for the company that produced the film. Nakoula denied he was Bacile and said he did not direct the film, though he said he knew Bacile.
Federal court papers filed against Nakoula in a 2010 criminal prosecution noted that he had used numerous aliases, including Nicola Bacily, Robert Bacily, Erwin Salameh and others.
During a conversation outside his home, Nakoula offered his driver's license to show his identity but kept his thumb over his middle name, Basseley. Records checks by the AP subsequently found that middle name as well as other connections to the Bacile persona.
The AP located the man calling himself Bacile after obtaining his cellphone number from Morris Sadek, a conservative Coptic Christian in the U.S. who has promoted the anti-Muslim film in recent days on his website. Egypt's Christian Coptic populace has long decried what they describe as a history of discrimination and occasional violence from the country's Muslim majority.
Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Fla., who sparked outrage in the Arab world when he burned Qurans on the ninth anniversary of 9/11, said he spoke with the movie's director on the phone Wednesday and prayed for him. Jones said he has not met the filmmaker in person but added that the man contacted him a few weeks ago about promoting the movie. Jones and others who have dealt with the filmmaker said Wednesday that Bacile was hiding his real identity.
"I have not met him. Sam Bacile, that is not his real name," Jones said. "He is definitely in hiding and does not reveal his identity."
The YouTube account under the username "Sam Bacile" was used to publish excerpts of the provocative movie in July and was used to post comments online as recently as Tuesday, including this defense of the film written in Arabic: "It is a 100 percent American movie, you cows."
Nakoula, who talked guardedly with AP about his role, pleaded no contest in 2010 to federal bank fraud charges in California and was ordered to pay more than $790,000 in restitution. He was also sentenced to 21 months in federal prison and was ordered not to use computers or the Internet for five years without approval from his probation officer.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Leigh Williams said Nakoula set up fraudulent bank accounts using stolen identities and Social Security numbers; then, checks from those accounts would be deposited into other bogus accounts from which Nakoula would withdraw money at ATM machines.
It was "basically a check-kiting scheme," the prosecutor told the AP. "You try to get the money out of the bank before the bank realizes they are drawn from a fraudulent account. There basically is no money."
Prior to his bank fraud conviction, Nakoula struggled with a series of financial problems in recent years, according to California state tax and bankruptcy records. In June 2006, a $191,000 tax lien was filed against him in the Los Angeles County Recorder of Deeds office. In 1997, a $106,000 lien was filed against him in Orange County.