Published September 13, 2012
HEMET, Calif. – The public face for the anti-Muslim film inflaming the Middle East is not the filmmaker, but an insurance agent and Vietnam War veteran whose unabashed and outspoken hatred of radical Muslims has drawn the attention of civil libertarians, who say he's a hate monger.
With the Coptic Christian filmmaker Nakoula Basseley Nakoula in hiding, film promoter Steve Klein has taken center stage in the unfolding international drama. He's given a stream of interviews about the film and the man he says he knew only as Sam Bacile, and is using the attention to talk about his own political views.
Nakoula, who used Bacile spelled multiple ways as a pseudonym, contacted Klein months ago for advice about the limits of American free speech and asked for help vetting the movie's script, Klein said in an interview with The Associated Press. The filmmaker asked the 61-year-old grandfather if he would act as a spokesman if the film "caught on," and he agreed.
The role dovetailed with Klein's relentless pursuit of radical Muslims in America, an activity he says he began after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It took on more meaning in 2007, when his son, a 32-year-old Army staff sergeant, was seriously injured in Iraq in 2007. Matthew Klein, a medic, was awarded the Bronze Star for bravery and a Purple Heart for injuries he suffered in the attack by a suicide bomber, according to the Army Human Resources Command.
"What do I get out of this? I get to die one of these days hoping my granddaughters and my grandsons will be safe from these monsters," Klein said while sipping a beer on the front porch of his home.
He claimed to have visited "every mosque in California" and identified "500 to 750 of these people who are future suicide bombers and murderers."
"Those are the guys I'm looking for. I'm not interested in mom and pop running a pizza store or running a smoky shop, a hookah shop," he said.
Klein works with his wife as an insurance agent out of a small office on the second floor of a downtrodden business complex in Hemet, a small city in the shadows of the San Jacinto Mountains about 90 miles southeast of Los Angeles. He describes himself as a failed real estate investor who lost 20 properties in the recession. In 2002, he was the American Independent Party's candidate for state insurance commissioner in 2002, receiving 2 percent of the vote.
The Southern Poverty Law Center says they have been tracking Klein for several years and have labeled two of the organizations he is affiliated with as hate groups.
Klein founded Courageous Christians United, which conducts protests outside abortion clinics, Mormon temples and mosques, and started Concerned Citizens for the First Amendment, which preaches against Muslims and publishes volumes of anti-Muslim propaganda that Klein distributes. He also has helped train paramilitary militias at the church of Kaweah near Three Rivers, about an hour southeast of Fresno, to prepare for what they believe is a coming holy war with Muslim sleeper cells, according to the law center.
"It's extreme, ugly, violent rhetoric and the fact that he's involved in that weapons training at that church, when you combine things like weapons training with hatred of a people, that's very concerning to us. Those are the kind of things that lead to hate crimes," said Heidi Beirich, director of the center's Intelligence Project.
Beirich said her group has not linked Klein to any violence. A review of California court records shows only two minor traffic cases for Klein.
Klein is not affiliated with the church of Kaweah, Pastor Warren Mark said. He was invited to speak about Islam and hasn't been back in more than a year.
Klein dismissed the concerns of his critics, angrily calling them "the wife-beaters and the pedophiles."
"Those people are screwballs. End of comment," he said.
What Klein has been eager to discuss in the days since his name became publicly linked to Nakoula is his role in the film's creation and his own political views.
Klein said he recognized parallels between what he saw in Vietnam, where he says he infiltrated Viet Cong cells, and "Muslim sleeper cells" he began finding after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He visits mosques and confronts young Muslim men who "dress up like Osama bin Laden and Yasser Arafat."
Military records obtained by the AP from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis show he served in the Marine Corps from 1968 to 1977 on active duty and received a service star for participating in the campaign in Vietnam. He also received a good conduct medal and a combat action medal before retiring in 1980 with the rank of first lieutenant.
"I'm kind of an unsophisticated James Bond operative. I want to piss this guy off, I want to find out, Why does he want to kill me?" he said. "Why does he want to capture my daughter and granddaughter and rape them? Why does this guy want to act this way?"
That work indirectly led him to his affiliation with Nakoula, an Egyptian Christian living outside Los Angeles, who contacted him about making an anti-Muslim movie.
Klein reviewed the script and then the man disappeared, only to resurface months later with a complete film ready to show at a movie theater in Hollywood.
The filmmaker's idea was to give the film a title that would draw in "hardcore Muslims" and then trick them into watching a movie that bashed Islam in the hopes that they would give up their faith, Klein said.
Nakoula papered Southern California mosques with flyers about the "Innocence of Muslims," but not one ticket was sold, said Klein, who said Nakoula was crushed.
The AP has tried without success to find a copy of the entire film.
Later, a 14-minute trailer showed up on YouTube and has been blamed for inflaming mobs that attacked U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya this week as well as U.S. Embassy in Yemen on Thursday. U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens was one of four Americans killed Tuesday in an attack in Libya.
Klein said he had no regrets about participating in the movie's creation.
"Do I have blood on my hands? No. Did I kill this guy? No," he said. "Do I feel guilty that these people were incited? Guess what? I didn't incite them. They're pre-incited, they're pre-programmed to do this."
Associated Press Writers Rachel Zoll and Randy Herschaft and Associated Press Researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York; Tracie Cone in Three Rivers, Calif., and Amy Taxin in Los Angeles contributed to this report.