The White House is no longer blaming him and his inflammatory video for sparking an attack that killed the American ambassador to Libya. But in the eyes of the U.S. government, Mark Basseley Youssef is still a criminal — and a potentially dangerous one at that. And so today, after Youssef admitted to four counts of violating his probation, a federal judge sentenced the man behind the notorious anti-Islam movie “Innocence of Muslims” to a year in prison. The 55-year-old’s request to serve out his sentence in home confinement was denied by U.S. District Court Judge Christina Snyder; his contention that he was some sort of First Amendment martyr, brushed aside.
Youssef — then believed to be operating under the name “Sam Bacile” — became an international figure in September when his video became a flashpoint for anti-American protests throughout the Muslim world. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton blasted the movie, which depicts a child-molesting Prophet Muhammad, as “disgusting and reprehensible.” The American ambassador to the U.N. claimed that a protest against the movie spontaneously morphed into the complex attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya that left four Americans dead.
That claim was later walked back by the Obama administration, to great political effect. But by then, Youssef was behind bars — the latest in 21-year-old series of run-ins with the law.
In August of 1991, Youssef, who owns a gas station, was convicted on two counts of selling watered-down fuel. Six years later, he was arrested on charges related to the manufacture of PCP. In 2009, Youssef was arrested for using 14 different identities — including “Kritbag Difrat” and “P.J. Tobacco” – in a check-kiting scheme. Afterwards, Youssef turned informant against the supposed ringleader. In return, he received a relatively light penalty for participation in the scheme: a $794,700 fine, 21 months in federal custody, and an order to stop lying about who he was.
“The defendant shall not obtain or possess any driver’s license, Social Security number, birth certificate, passport or any other form of identification in any name, other than the defendant’s true legal name,” reads Youssef’s terms of probation (.pdf). “Nor shall the defendant use, for any purpose or in any manner, any name other than his/her true legal name or names without the prior written approval of the Probation Officer.”
What prosecutors didn’t realize — and what only came out after the brouhaha over “Innocence” — was that Youssef had violated those terms even before he signed his probation agreement. Youssef was tried, convicted, jailed, and operated as a federal informant while assuming the name “Nakoula Basseley Nakoula.” Up until a few months ago, he had a California driver’s license that listed him as Nakoula.
But that wasn’t his real name at all, at least not anymore. Back in 2002, he legally changed his named from Nakoula Basseley Nakoula to Mark Basseley Youssef. ”Nakoula is a girl’s name and it causes me troubles,” he claimed at the time.
Boy, did it ever. Prosecutors argued — and judges agreed — that using the Nakoula and Bacile monickers — were clear violations of the former fraudster’s probation. He was arrested, held without bail, and today sentenced to a year in prison with four additional years of supervised release.
“This is not a defendant that you want out there using multiple names,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Robert Dugdale. ”This is a defendant who has engaged in a long pattern of deception… His dishonesty goes back years.”
And that includes how he went about making this movie. Actors in “Innocence” say they were duped into making anti-Islam agitprop, with the most inflammatory lines dubbed in after they shot their scenes. When the video went viral, Youssef, using the name Bacile and claiming to be Israeli, falsely claimed that 100 wealthy Jews had given $5 million to back the film. As the New York Times notes, Dugdale used these deceptions as part of his sentencing argument — even though none of the charges against Youssef related directly to the production of “Innocence.”
But Youssef’s defenders — and there are many — can’t shake the feeling that this is more about the movie’s controversial content than Youssef’s deceitful manner/a>. According to the anti-Islam advocate Robert Spencer, “He is a political prisoner.”
Youssef’s attorney, Steven Seiden, made a similar argument after Judge Snyder’s ruling today. ”In my opinion, the government used these proceedings to chill my client’s first amendment rights,” he told reporters. Then added that his client had a special message for them.
“The one thing he wanted me to tell all of you is President Obama may have gotten Osama bin Laden, but he didn’t kill the ideology,” Seiden said, according to the Associated Press.
Asked what that meant, Seiden said, “I didn’t ask him, and I don’t know.”