The Slatest

What We Know About the Obscure Film That Sparked The Riots in Libya

A car and the surrounding area are engulfed in flames after it was set on fire inside the US consulate compound in Benghazi late on Tuesday.

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images.

***UPDATE: The AP has solved the mystery of “Sam Bacile.”***

Original post 9/12 at 11:28 a.m.: The protests that preceded the attack that claimed the life of Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three of his American staff members yesterday appears to have been sparked by an obscure, anti-Islam film produced by “Sam Bacile,” a man who claims to be an Israeli-American real-estate developer who says his goal was to draw attention to the hypocrisies of Islam.

So, what do we know about Bacile? In short, not much.

A man claiming to be Bacile spoke to a number of international news outlets by phone after going into hiding in the wake of the attacks. As Religion Dispatch’s Sarah Posner points out, the man appears to have given a number of conflicting details about himself—including describing himself as 52 years old to the Wall Street Journal and as 56 to the Associated Press—so at the very least there are some doubts about the veracity of the man’s claims and growing speculation about whether Bacile is even a real person. [See update below about the growing number of questions about who was behind the film.]

Not a whole lot more is known about his film, Innocence of Muslims, which appears to have been screened only once, to a near empty theater in Hollywood earlier this year. Judging by the 13-minute trailer posted to YouTube in July, the film is supposed to be a “satirical” portrayal of the life of Muhammad. In addition to its criminally low production values, the film also takes care to portray Muhammad as a pedophile-appeasing, bumbling spreader of false doctrine. The offensive Muhammad narrative is interspersed with scenes of bearded men in generic Middle Eastern streets raiding missionary hospitals and threatening and killing young Christian women.

According to the New York Times, yesterday’s violence in Egypt and Libya was prompted by reports in Egyptian media about the film after it was dubbed into Egyptian Arabic last week and posted to YouTube.

What we know the most about, however, is the main promoter of the film, Terry Jones, who is an old hand at garnering media attention. He’s been using the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks for years as an opportunity to draw attention to his anti-Islam activism.

Jones is best known for threatening to burn a Quran on September 11, 2010. His church in Gainesville, Fla., eventually did burn one in the spring of 2011, sparking deadly riots across Afghanistan. Lately, despite a beyond long-shot run for president, Jones had been laying relatively low, focusing some of his efforts on “free-speech” issues in Dearborn, Michigan, where his appearances have drawn mob scenes. Last year, Jones was in New York for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, hanging out at a rally led by activists Pamela Gellar and Robert Spencer. This year, he was back in Gainesville on September 11 for “International Judge Muhammad Day,” which his site livestreamed.

Jones and his cohort have usually dealt with deaths related to their activism by deflecting any potential blame to Islam, which seems to be the case in a statement released by Jones’ organization soon after the most recent attacks:

“The fact that angry protesters climbed the wall at the US embassy in Cairo, today, ripped down the American flag and tore it apart further indicates the lack of respect that Islam has for any other religion, any other flag, any freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of religion. It further illustrates that they have no tolerance for anything outside of Mohammad. 

They raised up a black flag stating “There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his Messenger.” Islam is a religion that is totally incompatible with Western free society. It is a religion that cannot be criticized because of their extreme fear and knowing that if the religion of Islam is criticized and examined it will be revealed for what it is, a total deception.”

UPDATE: Questions continue to mount as to the identity of the person claiming to be Sam Becile (which, as Nora Connor pointed out, sounds a whole lot like a play on “imbecile”). Here’s a round-up of some of the best posts on the mystery:

  • Over at The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg spoke to far-right Christian activist Steve Klein, who was apparently a consultant on the film. He said, “I don’t know that much about him. I met him, I spoke to him for an hour. He’s not Israeli, no. I can tell you this for sure, the State of Israel is not involved, Terry Jones (the radical Christian Quran-burning pastor) is not involved. His name is a pseudonym. All these Middle Eastern folks I work with have pseudonyms. I doubt he’s Jewish. I would suspect this is a disinformation campaign.”
  • Meanwhile, Max Blumenthal speculates that Klein might be more involved with the film than he’s letting on. 
  • As On the Media noted, all the references to Islam seem to be dubbed in the low-production film: “If you watch closely, you can see that when the actors are reading parts of the script that do not contain Islam-specific language, the audio from the sound stage is used (the audio that was recorded as the actors were simultaneously being filmed). But anytime the actors are referring to something specific to the religion (the Prophet Muhammed, the Quran, etc.) the audio recorded during filming is replaced with a poorly executed post-production dub. And if you look EVEN closer, you can see that the actors’ mouths are saying something other than what the dub is saying.”
  • At Gawker (and later at CNN), some of the dubbing mystery seems to be solved.The original film script was apparently titled “desert warriors,” and “Mohammad” was called “Master George.”