Updated: September 12, 2012, 8:41 PM
Who is Sam Bacile? So far, the answer depends on who you ask and what you read.
Early reports after Tuesday’s violence against American diplomatic posts in Egypt and Libya identified Bacile as the producer and director of an absurd anti-Muslim film blamed for inspiring the anger of the mobs.But his biography remains sketchy at best. He has claimed to be a real estate developer, but nobody with his name has a real-estate license or appears in corporation records in California. He has been described as Israeli, but Israeli officials have not confirmed or denied that he is a citizen. He has also claimed to have raised millions for his film, but the results, a low-budget, offensive mess, seem to speak for themselves.
What is known is that in the first two days of July, someone with the YouTube username “Sam Bacile” uploaded two similar previews for a supposed full-length feature film called “Innocence of Muslims.” The same user uploaded an overdubbed version, apparently in Arabic, on Sept. 4.
Beyond the YouTube postings, essentially nothing about Bacile’s life can be publicly verified. Details reported by news outlets Tuesday and Wednesday morning were often in conflict with one another. And on Wednesday afternoon, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg spoke with a “self-described militant Christian activist” named Steve Klein, who served as a consultant on the film, and who told Goldberg that the name Sam Bacile itself is a fake.
“I don’t know that much about him,” Klein said. “I met him, I spoke to him for an hour. He’s not Israeli, no. I can tell you this for sure, the State of Israel is not involved, Terry Jones (the radical Christian Quran-burning pastor) is not involved. His name is a pseudonym. All these Middle Eastern folks I work with have pseudonyms. I doubt he’s Jewish. I would suspect this is a disinformation campaign.”
Klein’s comments to Goldberg contradict reports from the Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal, which both claimed to have spoken with Bacile on Tuesday.
In one report, the AP identified Bacile as an American citizen who spoke from a phone with a California number and with an “Egyptian accent.” The AP reported that Bacile declined to answer when asked if he was of Egyptian origin, and added that Bacile said “the full film has not been shown yet … and he said he has declined distribution offers for now.”
A second AP report, however, described Bacile as a 56-year-old “California real estate developer who identifies himself as an Israeli Jew.” In that report, the AP said Bacile claimed the film was made in three months in the summer of 2011, with the help of 59 actors and 46 people behind the camera, at a cost of $5 million, and with financing by more than 100 Jewish donors. Klein told the AP for that story that Bacile was concerned for family members that live in Egypt, and the report stated that Bacile had gone into hiding and had spoken “from an undisclosed location.”
The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, reported that Bacile was 52 years old, and described him as “Israeli-American.” The Journal said that Bacile was interviewed from his home phone.
“Islam is a cancer,” Bacile told the Journal. “The movie is a political movie. It’s not a religious movie.”
TPM’s attempts to reach Klein were not successful, but in a 2007 interview with a Yahoo! Contributor Network writer, he is described as a former Marine, Vietnam veteran and founder of a group called Courageous Christians United, where he is still listed as secretary. The group claims that it “exists to boldly and respectfully defend traditional Christianity against cults,” and it currently manages websites that refute Islam, Mormonism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Dr. Gary Cass, head of a group called the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission, who has worked with Klein on several issues, told TPM that he was aware Klein was working on the “Innocence of Muslims” project. Klein invited Cass several months ago to go to a screening in the Los Angeles area, according to Cass, but Cass declined.
“I was just made aware there was a screening, and then I asked, ‘How did it go?'” Cass said. “Klein told me it was a flop. And I thought that was over, and that was months ago.”
Cass — who said he has not seen the trailer uploaded to YouTube — laughed at the idea that $5 million had been spent on the movie. He also said he had never met Bacile, and he knew almost nothing about him.
“I thought it was a non-event, that some guy got a wild idea he was going to do a movie, and he tried, and he tried to even air it and do a screening,” Cass said. “And it flopped and it went away.”
Update: Wednesday afternoon, actors involved in the project began to speak out, saying they were deceived about the nature of the film. CNN obtained a statement purported to be from the entire cast and crew, saying that, “[w]e are 100% not behind this film and were grossly misled about its intent and purpose.”
One of the actresses involved with the film, Cindy Lee Garcia, gave an interview to Gawker on Wednesday in which she said that she and the other actors on the project were duped by the Bacile. According to Garcia, lines from the script were overdubbed in post-production.
“It was going to be a film based on how things were 2,000 years ago,” Garcia said. “It wasn’t based on anything to do with religion, it was just on how things were run in Egypt. There wasn’t anything about Muhammed or Muslims or anything.”
Another actor apparently involved, Tim Dax, addressed the movie on his Facebook page.
“i’m blown away by the news,” Dax wrote. “can hardly believe that i am a part. i feel badly for the lives lost. insane! having said that, it is a movie & hollywood creates controversy always. this in a crazy way will be the hollywood starting line 4 me. great things arise from great moments… even poorly acted ones. ;)”
Dax did not immediately respond to an email from TPM.
Late update: Has the mystery been solved? The AP on Wednesday interviewed a man named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who admitted to being the manager of the company that created the movie. Nakoula, 55, was tracked down to an address outside Los Angeles linked to the cell phone with which Bacile spoke with the AP on Tuesday.
Nakoula denied being film’s director, and instead said that he knew Bacile. He described himself as a Coptic Christian, and offered a driver’s license to prove his identity, but, according to the AP, he “kept his thumb over his middle name, Basseley.”
And, it turns out, federal court documents suggest that Nakoula has been associated with the numerous aliases, including: Thomas J. Tanas, PJ Tobacco, Ahmad Hamdy, Kritbag Difrat, Amal Nada, Erwin Salameh, Daniel K. Caresman, Robert Bacily, and Nicola Bacily.
In 2009, Nakoula faced federal bank fraud charges in California. In 2010, he was ordered to pay more than $790,000 in restitution, and sentenced to 21 months in federal prison. He was also ordered not to use computers, cell phones, or the Internet for five years unless he got an ok from a probation officer.