A week after four US officials were killed abroad by terrorists in Libya, there are still more questions than answers about the events surrounding their deaths. Protests against the US, as well as the discrimination against Muslims in Western countries and Western interference in general have broken out in India, Pakistan, Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, and even Indonesia.
Even though US intelligence has all but determined that the attacks that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were pre-planned and coordinated before the reaction to this video, “The Innocence of Muslims” was a severely damaging piece of propaganda. The full impact of the film on US relations with the new governments of the Arab Spring still remains to be seen. And the video’s origins, as well as its timing, have left many in the US and abroad highly suspicious.
The Men Behind the Movie
The driving force behind this film – in both making the film and promoting it in Egypt – was originally identified as Sam Bacile. Sam Bacile’s address was tracked by the Associated Press after the riots began, but Bacile was never found. Instead, the AP located a man named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. Nakoula is a Coptic Christian originally from Egypt. In the late ’90s, he spent a year in a Los Angeles prison for intent to manufacture meth amphetamines. Nakoula went to federal prison for 21 months after being convicted of bank fraud in 2010, and apparently he has multiple aliases.
While posing as Sam Bacile, Nakoula claimed to be an Israeli Jew, and explained that the film had political rather than religious motivations. Nakoula said that the film had raised $5 million for production from 100 Jewish donors. None of these donors have been identified, but two of Nakoula’s partners in the project have.
One of them is Steve Klein, a Vietnam veteran and vocal anti-Islam activist. (That’s apparently his preferred term for “abject racist.”) Klein refers to Muslims as “monsters,” and dismisses his critics as “wife-beaters and pedophiles.” He claims to have visited “every mosque in California” and identified hundreds of “future terrorists and suicide bombers” – a claim that is patently ridiculous considering the exactly zero terrorists uncovered by the NYPD’s months of infiltration and spying in Muslim communities in the metropolitan area. The 61-year-old also founded “Courageous Christians United,” an organization that thinks courage and Christianity mean protesting outside of abortion clinics and mosques. When reporters caught up with Klein a few days ago, he was described as visibly agitated, clutching a gun, splattered in ink, and adamant that he would be willing to die for his First Amendment rights.
The other is the president of the non-profit organization “Media for Christ,” Joseph Nassralla Abdelmasih. Like Nakoula, Abdelmasih is an immigrant from Egypt who is apparently displeased with the recent election that placed the Muslim Brotherhood in charge of the country. Abdelmasih’s organization states its mission as “glow Jesus’s light to the world,” and obtained the permits necessary for shooting the film in 2011. Despite this being public record, the organization both denies any involvement in the film and denounces the controversial material within it, despite Abdelmasih’s history of publicly criticizing Islam.
Of these three men, only Klein has refused to go into hiding. Nakoula has been in hiding since the FBI interviewed him on Saturday, and Abdelmasih’s whereabouts are unknown.
Movie Motive: The Intent to Incite
The intent of the video is clear: to incite outrage and violence in Muslim countries that are still unstable due to recent populist revolutions, especially Egypt. If this weren’t clear enough by the video – which portrays the Muslim prophet Mohamad as a vicious drunk and child molester – it is undeniable in the steps that Nakoula took to promote the film. In the days leading up to the September 11th riots, Nakoula sent links to the film’s trailer to Morris Sadek, an Egyptian Coptic blogger whose citizenship was revoked after he publicly called for a US military strike on Egypt. Sadek dubbed the trailer in Arabic, and it soon caught the attention of local Egyptian television stations, where it then spread like wildfire.
While the intent was clearly to incite outrage and violence in Egypt, the motive is still unclear. It’s unclear whether Nakoula was acting as a Coptic Christian, trying to help the group regain some power in the wake of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise in Egypt, or if he was hoping the reaction to his film would incite enough violence to further damage public opinion of Islam in the West. A darker – and more far-fetched – theory is that Nakoula was working with Sadek in order to inspire a situation that would merit US military intervention. And while a scheme like that may seem far-fetched to the US, the region is very wary and sensitive to even the slightest possibility of a US invasion. It’s no doubt this suspicion that the US government has some involvement with the film that has fueled the violence to continue and spread even a week later. And though that isn’t the case, it’s hard to blame all of the people who watched what happened in Iraq.
Fallout Around the World
Believe it or not, this is not the first viciously anti-Muslim video released exactly seven weeks prior to a US presidential election. In 2008, a film entitled “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West,” was mass-produced and mailed with local newspapers to 28 million voters in swing states. The film was filled to the brim with racist fear-mongering, and painted Muslims as inherently violent people with the sole mission of destroying the West. At first, it was unclear who had funded and produced the film, but eventually it was traced back to an incredibly secretive – and wealthy – libertarian group called Donors Capital Fund that spend over $15 million on the project. Only a few members of the group have been identified, and all of them have ties to prominent Republican fundraisers.
This does not seem to be the same situation. The film screened only once, in a small, sparsely attended showing in Los Angeles. But with the timing so similar, it doesn’t seem out of the question that this stunt was inspired at least in part by last election’s film, especially when paired with Nakoula’s statement that the film was politically motivated.
Nakoula is unlikely to have his efforts rewarded by either a war or a more bellicose leader. Mitt Romney so royally bungled this foreign policy crisis that he and the Republicans were in no position to put pressure on President Obama to step up US intervention in Libya, Egypt, or anywhere else.
The fallout abroad will likely be more severe. Egypt, Libya, and the other countries of the Arab Spring are still adjusting and calibrating their new governments, leadership, and social balance. With such violence and anti-Western sentiment, certain regions may be sympathetic to groups like the Taliban. And with a recent Taliban attack on NATO that left two NATO officers dead and six major aircraft destroyed – approximately $200 million in damage was done – and Obama refusing to acknowledge Egypt as an ally, this is a serious concern. After all, the Taliban was able to seize power in a time of chaos in Afghanistan, which prior to the Russian invasion of 1979 was a very progressive country.
Only time will tell how big the impact of this incident will be on the already tenuous Arab Spring / Western relationship. But make no mistake – this irresponsible piece of provocation theater will have serious consequences for the future of these countries, as well as for the United States.