Serdar Kilic has one of the hardest jobs in Washington.
Lobbying members of Congress, making speeches, handing out flash drives of supposed evidence, Turkey’s ambassador here is leading what appears to be a quixotic mission: bringing a reclusive Muslim cleric, holed up in rural Pennsylvania, before Turkish courts.
Turkey’s government has asked the Obama administration to extradite Fethullah Gulen, insisting he masterminded the July 15 coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that left more than 250 people dead.
The wide-ranging conspiratorial plot that Turkish officials accuse Gulen of directing is breathtaking. It’s also a tough sell.
“It’s like trying to explain a surrealistic Fellini movie,” Kilic said in an interview. “This is something very difficult for American people to understand.”
Turkey is a key NATO ally, is host to a major U.S. Air Force base and plays a critical role in the battle against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Washington is keenly interested in what happens there.
Erdogan’s government considers Gulen a terrorist and his movement a terrorist organization. The U.S. government does not.
And the extradition case is deepening tensions between Ankara and Washington.
Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag has told reporters in Ankara that investigators have confiscated half-a-million digital documents, including computer and smartphone records. The material, he said “will leave no doubt” about Gulen’s guilt.
Gulen, now 75, has lived the last 17 years in self-imposed exile at the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, and rarely goes out. He leads what he describes as a peaceful religious, educational and cultural organization.
He has acknowledged that some of his followers may have participated in the attempted government overthrow, but he said they were not acting on his orders and that he played no role.
“Nothing good will come out of coups,” Gulen told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on July 31. “Coups will divide, separate, disintegrate and make people the enemy of each other. This animosity will also affect future generations, just like it is in Turkey now.”
To hear Turkish authorities tell it, Turks loyal to Gulen, and trained in what critics portray as a cult-like empire of schools and mosques, have steadily, over years, infiltrated Turkish institutions and moved into positions of power.
Gulen’s followers penetrated, this version contends, the top echelons of Turkey’s military; many levels of the judiciary, intelligence services and police; financial institutions; schools across the board; newspapers and other media.
They created, the Turkish government alleges, a “parallel state” determined to undermine the Erdogan administration.
Armed with that vision, Erdogan’s government has arrested or fired more than 90,000 military officers, teachers, lawyers, journalists and others because of suspicions they supported Gulen and the failed putsch.
Mehmet Mehdi Eker, a politician from Erdogan’s party and a former Cabinet minister, was in the Turkish parliament building the night mutinous troops shelled and burned it. He played the ally card when he visited Washington last month to lobby lawmakers and others.
“Turkey and the United States are allies and friends, and in difficult times in history we would like that our friends be well-informed and realize what is happening,” Eker said in an interview at Ambassador Kilic’s residence.
Gulen’s extradition to Turkey was “our expectation” given the “rule of friendship” between the two countries, Eker argued.
Although Turkey immediately blamed Gulen for the coup attempt, it took Ankara nearly six weeks to make a formal request for his extradition — and that was based on earlier alleged crimes, not for his supposed role in the coup.
The Obama administration, which quickly condemned the coup, is formally considering the extradition request. But no decision appears imminent.
Some officials worry that Gulen would not get a fair trial in Turkey, and are wary of Turkey’s claims that he is a terrorist rather than a political opponent. Many find the alleged vast conspiracy to be far-fetched.
If the Gulenist infiltration was as deep and destabilizing as the Turkish government claims, then why did no one outside Turkey notice the threat?
“That everybody missed this, that it was so Machiavellian, so stealthy, so sneaky … that would be an astonishing feat if true,” said John Hannah, an expert on Turkey who has worked in both Democratic and Republican administrations.
“It is hard to believe it is true,” said Hannah, now a senior counselor at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan think tank.
“I am willing to believe it, but I want to see actual evidence,” said Eric Edelman, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and a former defense and national security official. “The bar has to be high.”
Turkey hired attorneys to build a case against Gulen even before the abortive coup.
Robert Amsterdam, an American lawyer based in London, has investigated Gulen’s work for more than a year. Any evidence he finds would not necessarily be part of an extradition case, but it could support Turkey’s portrayal of Gulen as a crook.
Amsterdam cites the network of charter schools that Gulen’s organization purportedly establishes and finances across the United States and in other countries.
The Los Angeles Times reported this week that L.A. Unified School District authorities are considering whether to close three Los Angeles charter schools, operated by locally based Magnolia Public Schools, because they brought in teachers from Turkey. The chain has denied direct ties to Gulen.
Until recently, it was hard for Amsterdam to meet U.S. lawmakers or law enforcement to discuss Gulen. He gets more of a hearing now, but says he still struggles to make his case, insisting that Gulen’s role is both clandestine and extensive.
“The Mafia couldn’t be this well-organized,” Amsterdam said.
Times staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.
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