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Unsettling Details Emerge About Controversial Muhammad Film

  • RFE/RL

A still from the film "Innocence of Muslims," which has ignited Muslim protests over its depiction of the Prophet Muhammad.

A still from the film "Innocence of Muslims," which has ignited Muslim protests over its depiction of the Prophet Muhammad.

Questions are arising over the origins of the amateur film now at the heart of violent anti-American protests now spreading across the Middle East.

The film, "Innocence of Muslims," was at first reported to be the work of an Israeli-American real-estate agent, Sam Bacile, who had raised $5 million from Jewish donors.

Now, however, it appears that Bacile may be a pseudonym for an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian who formally claims to run the company responsible for producing "Innocence of Muslims."

The man, 56-year-old Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, has denied that he is Sam Bacile. But Nakoula, a convicted criminal with a history of bank fraud, is known for using multiple aliases, many based on his middle name, Basseley.

Steven Klein, a man who has described himself vaguely as a consultant on the film, told Reuters in an interview on September 12 that Bacile was in fact a pseudonym. He did not connect the alias directly to Nakoula, saying only that he was not certain of the filmmaker's true identity.

"I met him twice. I don't know what country he is from. I do know that he is not an Israeli Jew," Klein said. "I can only guess that he threw that out to protect his family, which I do know is back in the Middle East."

Klein, a former U.S. Marine who currently works in the insurance business, has been tied by watchdog groups to right-wing Christian extremist groups. He denies the claim.

WATCH: In an interview with Reuters, Steven Klein denies any responsibility for the violent reactions to the film.

Anti-Muslim Supporters

The film has received support from Florida-based preacher Terry Jones, who rose to international notoriety with repeated threats to stage public burnings of the Koran, the Muslim holy book. He and a handful of followers carried through with the threat, burning copies of the Koran in April.

Jones, who claimed to have shown "Innocence of Muslims" to his parishioners on the September 11 anniversary, said the Arab violence illustrated that Muslims "have no tolerance for anything outside of Muhammad."

Klein suggested that many people behind "Innocence of Muslims" were U.S.-based immigrants who had fled repression from Muslim-majority countries. He said the people working on the film came from Syria, Pakistan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt, and included "two or three Coptic people."

Christian Copts have faced increasing hostility in Egypt, where the recent election of an Islamist president has raised anxieties among the country's religious minorities.

Egypt's Coptic Orthodox church was quick to condemn the film, criticizing on September 12 the role of Copts living abroad who it said had financed "the production of a film insulting Prophet Muhammad."

Deadly Reaction

The feature-length satirical film depicts the life of the Prophet Muhammad, whom it portrays as a dim-witted, womanizing character willing to misinterpret the Koran to suit his own needs.

The film is marked by almost laughably stilted dialogue and low production values. But its content has angered many Muslims, whose religion forswears any physical depiction of the Islamic prophet, let alone a mocking one.

On September 11, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other State Department employees were killed in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi during a protest over the film, although U.S. officials are now probing whether the attack was a planned terrorist strike and that militants used the protest as a cover for their assault.

Klein blamed the attack on "a small group of Muslim extremists" and not the film.

"If I talked to you about this movie, would you go out and kill anybody? No. Would the vast majority of Muslims do it?" he asked.

"Would a very small fraction [of people] whose DNA, genomes, their psyche, everything, revolves around this insane behavior -- would they go out and do it? Yeah. They would do it," he continued. "Do I have blood on my hands? No. Did I kill [Stevens]? No."

Protests Sweep Arab World

The film had an extremely brief and uncelebrated release in a single American movie theater several months ago.

A 12-minute trailer later appeared on YouTube. But it was only when an Arabic-dubbed version of the trailer appeared on the video-sharing site last week that "Innocence of Muslims" drew the attention of Arab protesters.

The protests, which began in Egypt and Libya, have since spread to Yemen, Iran, Tunisia, and the Gaza Strip.

WATCH: Protests erupt across Muslim world on September 13.

A U.S.-based Egyptian Coptic Christian activist, Morris Sadek, had promoted the film by writing about it in an Arabic-language blog post. It's not clear whether he was responsible for distributing it to the Egyptian media, whose reports on the video sparked the riots.

Google, which owns YouTube, says it has now restricted access to the film clips in the countries affected by the protests.

Cast, Crew Disown Film

Meanwhile, many of the actors involved in "Innocence of Muslims" have come forward to claim that they were tricked into appearing in the movie and that they were not aware of its intention to mock the Prophet Muhammad.

A statement from a group claiming to represent the cast said they had been recruited for a film named "Desert Warrior," filmed in a California church in the summer of 2011, whose script made no reference to the Prophet Muhammad.

Several actors said their lines were later dubbed by different actors to alter the dialogue in the film.

The statement went on to say the cast and crew had severed any connection with the film and that they had been "grossly misled about its intent and purpose."

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, dpa, and AP

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