Libya attack: Who's behind the inflammatory YouTube video?

An Egypt mob and a Libya attack are thought to have been sparked by a virulent anti-Islam YouTube video. But who was behind that amateurish video remains a mystery.

Mohammad Ismail/REUTERS
An Afghan man browses the YouTube website at a public internet cafe in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday. Afghanistan banned the YouTube website on Wednesday to stop Afghans watching a US-made film insulting the Prophet Mohammad that sparked protests in North Africa and the killing of the US ambassador to Libya.

As calls continue across the Mideast for protests related to the anti-Muslim film, “Innocence of Muslims,” the mystery over who is actually behind the project deepens.

A 14-minute trailer uploaded to YouTube in July, allegedly from a two-hour movie, reportedly sparked Tuesday’s violence against the US embassy in Cairo and a consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where four employees, including the US ambassador, were killed.

The whole business initially was attributed to a man identified as Sam Bacile, said to be a 50-ish American-Israeli citizen. A man with a heavy accent and “a California phone number,” spoke to several reporters on Tuesday, including those with the Times of Israel, the Associated Press, and The Wall Street Journal. In the Times of Israel report, a spokesman for the Israeli government denied any citizenship records for a Sam Bacile.

The YouTube profile behind the clip sets Mr. Bacile’s age at 75, and there is no additional information other than two video clips.

On Wednesday, the Atlantic magazine’s Jeffrey Goldberg spoke to Steve Klein, a self-described “consultant” on the film, who said bluntly that he did not know the identity of Sam Bacile or if there actually was a Sam Bacile. 

Mr. Klein told the Atlantic that at least 15 people were behind the film and added, “Nobody is anything but an active American citizen. They're from Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, they're some that are from Egypt. Some are Copts but the vast majority are Evangelical."

In several interviews, the man calling himself Sam Bacile also indicated that the film cost $5 million to produce and noted that the money was collected from some 100 donors. However, in a blog posting Wednesday, BuzzFeed noted that the production values of the 14-minute clip were so amateurish as to make the claim of a multimillion dollar budget, “risible.” BuzzFeed goes on to suggest that there might not even be a full movie behind the clip.

“Nearly all of the names in the movie's trailer make up a compilation of the most clumsily-overdubbed moments from what is in reality an incoherent, haphazardly-edited set of scenes,” it says. “Among the overdubbed words is ‘Mohammed,’ suggesting that the footage was taken from a film about something else entirely. The footage also suggests multiple video sources – there are obvious and jarring discrepancies among actors and locations.”

Some analysts are suggesting the violence stemming from the video clip was far from spontaneous.

“This has all the earmarks of being heavily orchestrated,” says Nasser Weddady, civil rights outreach director for the American Islamic Congress.

“There are extremist groups, funded by among others, the Saudis, who deliberately set out to inflame these kinds of extremist sentiments,” he says. He points to the fact that the trailer sat unnoticed on YouTube for nearly two months, until the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

“Then it hit this very sophisticated network of media channels that spew this kind of hate,” he says, adding, “This did not just happen.”

Observers need to take a step back, says Kecia Ali, associate professor of religion at Boston University.

For over a millennium, Western critics have demonized Muhammad as a sensualist, governed by his physical appetites, and as violent, callous, and bloodthirsty – characterizations extended to Islam as a religion, she points out.

“These portrayals, which were aimed at Christian audiences, have coexisted for centuries with more positive Western appraisals treating Muhammad as a visionary leader and moral teacher,” she says.

However, when an event such as this video clip surfaces, she says, “when virulently negative images like those from this film arise, aimed at antagonizing Muslims directly, it is important to ask who is choosing these images for what purpose?”

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