The surrounding mystery of the man behind the crudely produced anti-Islamic video that sparked violence in the Middle East took a strange turn after he appeared in court and gave yet another name in a string of aliases.
Arrested on Thursday after authorities said he violated his probation from a 2010 check fraud conviction, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula told a judge his real name was Mark Basseley Youseff. He said he’d been using that name since 2002, even though he went by Nakoula in his fraud case.
The full story about Nakoula and the video “Innocence of Muslims” still isn’t known more than two weeks after violence erupted in Egypt and Libya, where Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others were killed in Benghazi. Violence related to the film has since spread, killing dozens more.
Citing a lengthy pattern of deception and the potential to flee, U.S. Central District Chief Magistrate Judge Suzanne Segal ordered Nakoula to remain in prison without bond until another judge can hold a hearing to determine if he broke the terms of his probation.
“The court has a lack of trust in this defendant at this time,” Segal said.
Prosecutors noted Nakoula had eight probation violations, including lying to his probation officers and using aliases. He could face new charges that carry a maximum two-year prison term.
After his 2010 conviction, Nakoula was sentenced to 21 months in prison and was barred from using computers or the Internet for five years without approval from his probation officer, though prosecutors said none of the violations involved the Internet. He also wasn’t supposed to use any name other than his true legal name without the prior written approval of his probation officer.
Three names, however, have been associated with Nakoula this month alone.
The movie was made last year by a man who called himself Sam Bacile. After the violence erupted, a man who identified himself as Bacile spoke to media outlets including The Associated Press, took credit for the film and said it was meant to portray the truth about Muhammad and Islam, which he called a cancer.
The next day, the AP determined there was no Bacile and linked the identity to Nakoula, a former gas station owner with a drug conviction and a history of using aliases. Federal authorities later confirmed there was no Bacile and that Nakoula was behind the movie.
Some of the false statements in Nakoula’s alleged probation violations had to do with the film, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Dugdale said. Nakoula told probation officials his role was just writing the script, and denied going by the name Sam Bacile in connection with the film, Dugdale said.
Before going into hiding, Nakoula acknowledged to the AP that he was involved with the film, but said he only worked on logistics and management.
Nakoula, a Christian originally from Egypt, then went into hiding after he was identified as the man behind the trailer, which depicts Muhammad as a womanizer, religious fraud and child molester. He met with federal probation officials two weeks ago, led out of his home in suburban Cerritos in the middle of the night, flanked by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies and cloaked in heavy clothing to protect his identity.
The public got their first good look at Nakoula on Thursday, although the news media was banned from the courtroom and reporters had to watch the proceedings on a TV in a nearby courthouse.
Nakoula wore beige pants and a collared shirt when he was led into the courtroom handcuffed and shackled. He appeared relaxed, smiling at one point before the hearing and conferring with his attorney.
Nakoula’s attorney Steven Seiden sought to have the hearing closed and his client released on $10,000 bail. He argued Nakoula has checked in with his probation officer frequently and made no attempts to leave Southern California.
Seiden was concerned that Nakoula would be in danger in federal prison because of Muslim inmates, but prosecutors said he likely would be placed in protective custody.
Lawrence Rosenthal, a constitutional and criminal law professor at Chapman University School of Law in Orange, said it was “highly unusual” for a judge to order immediate detention on a probation violation for a nonviolent crime, but if there were questions about Nakoula’s identity it was more likely.
“When the prosecution doesn’t really know who they’re dealing with, it’s much easier to talk about flight,” Rosenthal said. “I’ve prosecuted individuals who’d never given a real address. You don’t know who you’re dealing with, and you’re just going to have very limited confidence about their ability to show up in court.”
Enraged Muslims have demanded punishment for Nakoula, and a Pakistani cabinet minister has offered a $100,000 bounty to anyone who kills him.
First Amendment advocates have defended Nakoula’s right to make the film while condemning its content. And federal officials likely will face criticism from those who say Nakoula’s free speech rights were trampled by his arrest on a probation violation.
In arguing that Nakoula is a possible flight risk, Dugdale said Nakoula couldn’t even reveal something as fundamental as his real name.
“He’s a person who simply can’t be trusted,” he said.