National Security

With Flynn gone as Trump adviser, Turkey still pressing for cleric’s extradition

Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen at his compound in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. Turkish officials express growing frustration over what they believe is U.S. inaction on their request that Gulen be extradited to Turkey, something U.S. officials say they can’t do until Turkey convinces a U.S. judge that its allegations against Gulen are legitimate.
Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen at his compound in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. Turkish officials express growing frustration over what they believe is U.S. inaction on their request that Gulen be extradited to Turkey, something U.S. officials say they can’t do until Turkey convinces a U.S. judge that its allegations against Gulen are legitimate. AP

He is the “head of a terrorist organization,” the “cult leader” of a movement that has infiltrated every part of the Turkish state. He’s the mastermind behind an attempted coup that left a nation in chaos and 250 people dead. And still the United States, a close ally, refuses to hand him over.

That, at least, is the view from Ankara.

Turkey’s insistence on the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who has lived in exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, remains a major irritant in the strained relations with the U.S. since last summer’s failed coup against the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But unlike the military quagmire in Syria, where the Pentagon is backing Kurdish forces that Turkey considers a terrorist group, Ankara sees Gulen’s extradition as a simple matter the U.S. should act on quickly.

“At the moment, the Turkish public has a very negative opinion of the United States,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said last week. Sending Gulen back to Turkey would accomplish that.

Turkey, Yildirim said, sent the U.S. Justice Department “84 folders of information” linking Gulen to the coup, but the Obama administration didn’t act. Turkish officials had high hopes for a different result under President Donald Trump – after all, Trump’s first pick for national security adviser, Michael Flynn, once wrote a widely distributed column calling for Gulen’s extradition.

But then Trump fired Flynn after just 24 days for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about a conversation Flynn had with the Russian ambassador. Last week, Flynn belatedly told the Justice Department that he was paid $530,000 for work on Turkey’s behalf at a time when he was Trump’s principal foreign policy adviser.

Now there’s less certainty in the Turkish capital that the Gulen case will go Turkey’s way. Yildirim characterized the Obama administration response to the Gulen extradition request as “mocking.” He warned that the Trump administration “should not repeat the same mistake.”

The U.S. “needs to win the hearts and minds of Turkish public opinion,” he said, or risk further alienating the second largest army in the NATO alliance and a key partner in the fight against the Islamic State.

It’s making Turkish people uncomfortable when we think about the delays in the extradition process…when you think about Gulen and his carrying out his activities without any restriction.

Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag

[READ MORE: Tense Turkey awaits Trump’s decision on retaking ISIS capital in Syria]

A permanent U.S. resident, Gulen, 75, has denied any involvement in the coup attempt. But those denials have done little to assuage Turkish officials’ passion for his return to his native land, where he remains influential through his Hizmet movement that runs newspapers, television networks and college exam prep schools.

Yildirim pressed the issue with Pence at the Munich Security Conference last month, where he told Pence that Gulen’s extradition would open the door to a fresh start between the two countries.

Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said he raised the issue with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a letter congratulating Sessions on his confirmation. Sessions hasn’t responded, but Bozdag said he’s requested a followup phone call with Sessions “in the coming days.”

We have provided the United States with evidence, testimonies, information…tons and tons of evidence directly linking this religious cult to the coup attempt.

Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek

[White House says Trump didn’t know former adviser Flynn had lobbied for Turkey]

Bozdag said Sessions’ predecessor, Loretta Lynch, told him that U.S. authorities were taking their time because they “want our hand to be strong.” He bristles at news reports that depict Turkey’s fixation on Gulen as paranoid.

“Imagine that the same coup attempt took place in the United States – the Senate, the White House, the Pentagon, had been bombed, and 248 U.S. citizens were killed and 2,194 U.S. citizens were wounded,” Bozdag said. “If you all knew the coup attempt was orchestrated by someone who is residing in Turkey, and Turkey was taking some time to take action, what would you think about it?”

The Justice Department says it continues to work with the Turkish government on the Gulen case. “We will review any new materials the Turkish government may provide and will make any decisions about extradition on the basis of the facts and relevant U.S. law,” spokeswoman Nicole Navas said in an email.

The case would have to hold up in U.S. federal court in order for Gulen to be extradited, and the slow movement on the matter indicates that the Justice Department does not think it would. Asked if the evidence could be shared with journalists or the public, Bozdag got heated.

“These are not allegations, these are facts,” he insisted. “According to the evidence we submitted to the United States it is crystal clear that Fethullah Gullen is behind the coup attack.”

Top officials repeatedly compared Gullen’s direct involvement in the coup to that of Osama bin Laden in the September 11, 2001 attacks.

“I can clearly say that whatever Osama bin Laden means for American citizens, Fethullah Gulen means for the Turkish people,” Bozdag said.

Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek said the U.S. should consider Turkey’s past support in bringing terrorists to justice.

“We stood with the United States. We didn’t question,” he told reporters, referring to the aftermath of the 2001 attacks. “We didn’t say show us smoking guns. We didn’t say prove to us that these guys were behind (it). We said we’re with you, we sent our Turkish army to Afghanistan to fight al Qaida.”

He said it was hard to believe that “half a million pieces of evidence” showing that Gulen-linked coup leaders had been “caught red-handed” wasn’t enough for the United States. The Justice Department declined to comment on that evidence.

In response to the coup, Erdogan’s government has arrested more than 41,000 people, including many journalists, and purged more than 100,000 people from the civil service. Government officials said it had been necessary to cast a wide net as Gulen’s movement had infiltrated all Turkish institutions, including universities, news outlets and the police and judiciary.

But it was not the first time Erdogan’s government has accused Gulen, who once was an Erdogan ally, of manipulating the country’s institutions against him. In 2013, Erdogan blamed Gulen for a corruption investigation that implicated the president and his family. In 2015, Gulen’s movement was declared a terrorist organization that the government has dubbed FETO, an acronym for Fethullah Terrorist Organization.

“In the last 40 years they infiltrated different state institutions and eventually carried out the July 15 coup attempt,” said Ibrahim Kalin, an influential assistant to Erdogan. “The overwhelming majority of people in Turkey, from right to left . . . say that FETO is the common threat to our national security and we have to get rid of these people.”

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen

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