The shadowy ex-felon whose viciously anti-Muslim film set off riots across the world has gone into hiding with his family, according to police, while some Islamic leaders have called for him to be hunted down and killed.
After spending the weekend in police custody – apparently being questioned over possible parole violations – Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Coptic Christian, was released on Monday, reunited with his family and driven to an undisclosed location, according to the Los Angeles County sheriff's department.
Mr. Nakoula, 55, told associates he was "scared to death," according to published reports. Given the rage and at least one fatwa targeting him, his fears may be justified.
According to the local edition of the news website Patch, Mr. Nakoula's wife, two sons and a daughter were picked up at about 3:40 a.m from their home in Cerritos, Calif., a city of 50,000 in Los Angeles County, north of Long Beach. The family members wore hooded clothes to cover their heads and faces, the website said, and "quickly scurried" to unmarked sheriff's vehicles.
"All we did was pick them up and reunite them with Mr. Nakoula," said Steve Whitmore, a sheriff's department spokesman, as quoted by ABC News.
"What they told me is that for the time now and for the immediate future, for the weeks and months to come, they will not be returning to this address," he added.
Mr. Nakoula's precise involvement with the film, Innocence of Muslims, remains unclear, although U.S. authorities believe he one of its principal creators. Although only clips of the film have been seen online, its depictions of the prophet Mohammed as a womanizer and killer have provoked a wave of deadly anti-American protests from the Middle East to Asia.
Outrage over the film – or, more accurately, a 14-minute trailer from it that has been translated into Arabic and is widely available on YouTube – has transformed Mr. Nakoula from an obscure fraudster into a fugitive target for jihadists.
In Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told state-run Press TV that U.S. President Barack Obama and European leaders "must prove that they were not accomplices in this big crime" by banning the film and punishing those who made it.
Iranian Vice-President Mohammad Reza Rahimi said the country's agents "search for, track, and pursue this guilty person who ... has insulted 1.5 billion Muslims in the world."
Radical imam Ahmed Ashoush, a Cairo cleric linked to the current al-Qaeda leadership and Osama bin Laden, issued a fatwa – or religious edict – saying the "blood should be shed" of everyone involved in the making the film, and "their killing is a duty of every capable Muslim."
Mr. Nakoula was convicted in 1997 of possession of chemicals commonly used to make methamphetamine. In 2010 he was convicted of fraud in a scheme to use stolen identities to acquire credit cards. Sentenced to 21 months in jail, where he allegedly wrote the screenplay for Innocence of Muslims, he was paroled in June 2011. The film was shot months later.
At least some of the actors who appeared in the low-budget production, called "Desert Warriors" while it was being made, said they had no idea that it was intended to denigrate Islam.
Mr. Nakoula initially denied he was the driving force behind the film, but authorities have now linked him – or his aliases – to it.
The film reflects inflammatory accusations often made by a radical U.S.-based Coptic cleric Zakaria Botros Henein who was expelled from Egypt, where Copts form a significant minority. His son, Benyamin told the Los Angeles Times that he didn't believe his father was involved with the film, although, he said, the movie was "just the truth."
Demonstrations, some massive, continued Monday, nearly a week after the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed in an assault on the Benghazi consulate that accompanied a protest against the film.
In Beirut, the rarely-seen head of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, told a rally of tens of thousands that the anti-Muslim film will spawn "very dangerous repercussions around the world."
Although many Arab capitals were quiet Monday, huge anti-American demonstrations staged outside U.S. diplomatic missions in Kabul, the Pakistani city of Karachi and the Indonesian capital of Jakarta.