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In anti-Islam movie furor, fears that a filmmaker’s lies have legs

Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens was one of four U.S. diplomats killed in a rocket attack in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. (U.S. Department of State)

NEW YORK (JTA) — There was no Israeli-American real estate developer named Sam Bacile, and the 100 Jews he claimed had financed his anti-Islam film were fictitious as well.

Both fabrications were offered to the media apparently to hide the true identity of the Egyptian Christian from Southern California who has since been fingered as the main figure behind the film that sparked violence across the Muslim world.

Still, there are those who continue to cling to the false notion that Jews were behind the film. Days after the Jewish connection was shown to be a fiction, the English-language website of Iran’s Press TV was repeatedly citing the disproved reports that the film was made by Jews. Meanwhile, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a statement blaming “evil Zionists” and the U.S. government for the film.

“We are greatly concerned that this false notion that an Israeli Jew and 100 Jewish backers were behind the film now has legs and is gathering speed around the world,” said the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, in a statement issued on Sept. 13. “In an age where conspiracy theories, especially ones of an anti-Semitic nature, explode on the Internet in a matter of minutes, it is crucial for those news organizations who initially reported on his identity to correct the record.”

Foxman added that even after it became clear that the filmmaker was not Jewish, “news organizations across the Arab world and anti-Semites and anti-Israel activists have continued to describe him as such.”

In his own statement on Sept. 13, Iran’s supreme leader said that the film “showed the fury of the evil Zionists at the daily-increasing radiance of Islam and Holy Qur’an in the present world.”

Khamenei said that the “prime suspects in this crime are Zionism and the U.S. government,” and demanded that American politicians make those behind the film “face a punishment proportionate to this great crime.”

Khamenei did not, however, refer specifically to the filmmaker’s identity or fabrications regarding his financing.

A 14-minute trailer for the crudely produced film, “Innocence of Muslims,” ridiculing Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and posted to YouTube has been cited as the reason for the outbreak of attacks on U.S. and other Western diplomatic posts in the Middle East.

The violence began on the night of Sept. 11, when heavily armed men stormed the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. The assault caused the deaths of the country’s American ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and three members of his staff. The deadly attack followed angry protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, where rioters breached the compound’s walls and destroyed its American flag.

Media outlets quickly tracked down a California man who gave his name as Sam Bacile and was reported to have produced, directed and written the film, “Innocence of Muslims.” He claimed to be an Israeli-American real estate developer hoping to help Israel with the film, which he said was financed with $5 million from 100 Jewish donors.

While his claims were widely reported in the media — including by JTA — they quickly came under scrutiny and were shown to be false.

For starters, there was no such person by that name involved in film or real estate, nor was that name known to the Israeli government or in California’s Jewish and Israeli communities.

A self-described Christian activist from Southern California who was a consultant to the film told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that Bacile was a pseudonym and he was not Israeli, and likely not Jewish. The consultant, Steve Klein, who has a history of anti-Islam activism, said that those behind the film were largely Evangelical Christians and included some Egyptian Coptic Christians.

An actress who appeared in the film — who said she and other cast members were misled about its true message — said the producer was Egyptian.

The Associated Press, one of the outlets that along with The Wall Street Journal had interviewed the producer and reported his false claims, on Sept. 12 traced the cell phone it had used to contact the filmmaker to the Southern California home of a Coptic Christian who admitted to involvement with the film’s logistics. While the man, 55-year-old Nakoula Bassely Nakoula, initially denied being Bacile, his middle name and a known alias closely resembled the fake name used by the filmmaker.

A federal law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the AP on Sept. 13 that authorities had concluded that Nakoula was the key figure behind the film. Nakoula, who has served time in prison on bank fraud and identity theft charges, was questioned and released by federal probation officers. The terms of his probation prohibit him from using Internet-connected devices without the approval of his probation officers.

Federal authorities told ABC News that Nakoula admitted to producing the film with his son. Authorities say he told them that he wrote the film’s script while in prison, that the film cost between $50,000 and $60,000, and was financed by his wife’s relatives in Egypt.

Nakoula has reportedly gone into hiding.

After the initial attacks on U.S. diplomatic compounds in Egypt and Libya, the attacks on diplomatic compounds spread to other Muslim countries, including Yemen, Tunisia and Sudan.

In Jerusalem last Friday, hundreds of Palestinians clashed with Israeli police after leaving prayers on the Temple Mount. According to The Jerusalem Post, police said the youths, some of whom threw stones, were headed to the city’s U.S. consulate and that stun grenades were used to try to disperse them.

In Tel Aviv on Sept. 13, a small group of Muslim protesters demonstrated peacefully outside the U.S. Embassy.

Taleb a-Sanaa, an Arab member of Israel’s Knesset, reportedly said the same day that “Zionist elements” are trying to encourage hatred of Islam “out of political considerations.”