The mysterious movie that sparked furious protests at U.S. embassies across the Middle East this week might not even exist.
The film “Innocence of Muslims” appears to be little more than a hokey, badly dubbed YouTube clip promoted by a handful of fringe Christian fanatics bent on provoking a violent response from the Muslim world. They got their wish after the amateurish YouTube “trailer” went viral online and was aired by an Arabic satellite channel.
Fury over the 14-minute trailer – which depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a sex-crazed child molester and murderer – led to riotous crowds this week at U.S. embassies in Egypt and Yemen. An attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Tuesday killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. That incident now appears to have been a coordinated assault planned by Islamist militants.
The attack, though apparently unrelated, played out at the same time as protesters scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and pulled down and burned the American flag in anger over the YouTube clip, leading media reports to link the two events.
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In the immediate aftermath of the fatal attack in Libya, reporters from the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal tracked down a man who identified himself as Sam Bacile and said he was the film’s writer and producer. He claimed to be an “Israeli Jew” or an Israeli American, and said the movie had a $5 million budget that had been financed by Jews. “Islam is a cancer,” he told reporters.
But by Thursday the story had unraveled. Bacile is not a real person, and there is little evidence anyone ever saw “Innocence of Muslims” in any theater. Certainly it did not cost anywhere near $5 million to make.
On the YouTube clip, actors’ lines about Muhammad and Islam are crudely dubbed over. Bizarre, poorly edited scenes of sex and violence play out in front of a cartoonish green-screen desert. Actors who appear in the movie have come forward to say the script they used never mentioned Muhammad’s name, and that they had no idea they would appear in a film that denigrated Islam.
It now appears the Internet furor over the movie was orchestrated by a trio of anti-Muslim fanatics in the United States.
The Associated Press eventually traced the cellphone used by Bacile to a residence in Cerrito, Calif. The resident, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, described himself as an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian. He denied to the AP that he had directed the film but said he knew Bacile. Federal authorities have told AP that they believe Nakoula, who in 2010 was convicted of bank fraud, is the man behind the film.
An anti-Muslim agitator named Morris Sadek, president of an obscure organization called the National American Coptic Assembly near Washington, D.C., promoted the film by email, Twitter and Facebook.
Sadek is despised in Egypt, even among many fellow Copts who see him as a loose cannon. His citizenship was revoked by his native country in 2011 for "calling for war against Egypt," among other crimes, according to the Egypt Independent newspaper.
Sadek did not answer the door of his two-story brick townhome in the Washington-area suburb of Chantilly, Va., on Thursday, nor did he return phone calls and emails from a reporter. His organization is run out of the same address.
Reached by phone by Reuters on Wednesday, Sadek identified Sam Bacile as the film’s writer and director. He told Reuters that he backed the film to draw attention to the plight of the Coptic Christian minority in Egypt.
Reuters quoted Sadek as saying “of course” he was sorry about the violent response to the film, but he did not think the movie offended Islam.
The Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California & Hawaii released a statement Thursday, rejecting the "inflammatory movie about the prophet of Islam" and the violence reaction.
"It is not the Christian way to respond to hatred with hate," the statement reads.
The film also has been tied to a Vietnam veteran, Steve Klein. Klein, from Riverside County, Calif., belongs to a tiny church that boasts a “militant Christian separatist worldview,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. He told the Los Angeles Times that “the idea was to locate . . . those folks who believed Osama bin Laden was a great guy and to try to get them to come to the movie."
The episode demonstrates how easy it is for a just few extremists to spread chaos around the globe from their computers, said Lawrence Pintak, dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University and author of “The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil.”
“We’re so far beyond the CNN-effect days. We’re into this YouTube effect, where words are lethal and it’s so easy to manipulate mainstream media and social and extremist media for your own ends,” Pintak said. “. . . All it takes is a laptop and an Internet connection and you can cause people to die and you can play to the script.”
“In this case it’s quite clear these guys got what they hoped for, and that was they provoked the Islamists.”