The man allegedly behind the anti-Islam YouTube video that sparked deadly riots in North Africa, the Middle East, and other parts of the world now sits in a Los Angeles jail on charges that have little to do with the crude, 14-minute trailer titled “Innocence of Muslims.”
Instead, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula – the name authorities have settled on for a man known variously as “Sam Bacile,” “Mark Basseley,” and “Mark Basseley Youseff” (which is what he now calls himself), plus a dozen other names – is being held for violating the terms of probation related to a 2010 bank fraud conviction.
Following his conviction, for which he served one year in federal prison, Mr. Nakoula had been ordered not to use an alias or access the Internet without the permission of his probation officer.
At a preliminary bail hearing late Thursday, his attorney argued that Nakoula is not a flight risk and that if jailed he likely would be subject to physical attack because of the inflammatory nature of the video, which portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a fraud and a madman.
"It is a danger for him to remain in custody at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles because there are a large number of Muslims in there," Steven Seiden said. "We are extremely concerned about his safety."
But Assistant US Attorney Robert Dugdale argued that Nakoula had engaged in a "pattern of deception" and is "a person who cannot be trusted."
"He poses a flight risk and poses a danger to others,” Mr. Dugdale said. "He has every incentive to disappear.”
That’s a reasonable assumption, according to some legal authorities.
Lawrence Rosenthal, a constitutional and criminal law professor at Chapman University School of Law in Orange, Calif., told the Associated Press that it is "highly unusual" for a judge to order immediate detention on a probation violation for a nonviolent crime, but if there are questions about Nakoula's identity it is more likely.
"When the prosecution doesn't really know who they're dealing with, it's much easier to talk about flight," Mr. Rosenthal said in the AP report. "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."
The federal judge agreed.
"He engaged in a likely pattern of deception both to his probation officers and the court," US Magistrate Suzanne Segal said in issuing her ruling that Nakoula be held pending a decision on the eight charges of violating probation. "The court has a lack of trust in this defendant at this time.”
The amateurish short video – there’s no indication that a full film ever was produced – stirred deadly riots that began in Egypt, then spread to other countries, including Libya. There, US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Embassy personnel were killed at the consulate in Benghazi.
Beyond the immediate violence that “Innocence of Muslims” set off on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the episode has raised questions about who launched the attack in Benghazi and the Obama administration’s response, which in turn has stirred US politics as the presidential election approaches. A subtext is freedom of expression – enshrined in the US Constitution but not recognized in countries where “Innocence of Muslims” is considered blasphemy.
Shortly after the attack that killed Ambassador Stevens, UN Ambassador Susan Rice said the riot in Benghazi “seems to have been hijacked … by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons.”
Since then, White House officials have acknowledged that it was a sophisticated “terrorist attack.” Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, some Republican lawmakers, and conservative media have faulted President Obama for what they say is a weak and halting response to the attack and the broader regional unrest it reflects.
The extent to which Al Qaeda was involved remains unclear. Whether or not it was Al Qaeda per se, the organization has cooperated with a number of known terrorist groups worldwide including “The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group,” according to GlobalSecurity.org.
Back in the United States, where Nakoula Basseley Nakoula remains in custody, actors who appeared in “Innocence of Muslims” say they were duped into appearing in a film they were told was titled “Desert Warriors,” into which anti-Islam dialogue later was dubbed. One actress has sued YouTube and parent company Google in an attempt to have the video removed.