Erdogan's supporters fault the U.S.

Photographer: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

U.S.-Turkey Tension Over Cleric Explodes After Coup

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has accused a Muslim cleric in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains of plotting this weekend's military coup, and some Turkish officials accuse the U.S. of playing a role.

The cleric, Fethullah Gulen, denies he was involved, and the State Department denies the U.S. was. Even so, the failed coup and subsequent accusations turn a minor irritant in U.S.-Turkey relations into a crisis.

Erdogan has been pressing the Obama administration for more than two years to extradite Gulen to face prosecution in Turkey and curb his supporters' political influence and network of private schools. Last year, Erdogan hired Robert Amsterdam, a well-known attorney, to make the case in public against Gulen's network.

In an interview Saturday, Amsterdam told me the Turks had complained before the coup to U.S. officials about the administration's policy toward Gulen. "Americans at the highest level were warned very recently by the Turkish government of the continuing damage done to the relationship with Turkey by what appears to be the unlimited support by U.S. officials at federal, state and local levels of the Gulen organization and its fundraising," Amsterdam said.

He specifically said that Gulen's supporters had been funneling campaign contributions to members of Congress, ostensibly to protect a network of schools affiliated with the Gulenist movement. In 2014, Buzzfeed investigated this fundraising and found that lawmakers of both parties had received money from the cleric's supporters.

Setting up religious schools is hardly evidence of fomenting a coup. But U.S. officials have themselves raised questions over the years about Gulen's efforts to take over Turkish government institutions. A 2005 diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara discusses the Gulen movement's "penetration of state institutions"

The story of America's involvement with Gulen begins in 1999, when he traveled to the U.S. for treatment for diabetes and a heart condition. After the medical procedures, Gulen stayed in the country as a political asylum seeker. A Turkish court accused him of fomenting insurrection through a network of his followers inside the government. But those charges were dropped in 2006. Two years later, Gulen got his green card, and has been a permanent U.S. resident ever since.

Nonetheless, suspicions that Gulen has operated a shadow government persist. A 2009 cable from James Jeffrey, then the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, acknowledged these rumors. Jeffrey wrote that "the assertion that the (Turkish National Police) is controlled by Gulenists is impossible to confirm but we have found no one who disputes it." Jeffrey added in that message that he had heard rumors that Gulenists who take the entrance exam for the police were provided the answers ahead of time. 

Back then Erdogan was allied with Gulen. Both want Turkey to be more Islamic, though Gulen follows a different interpretation of the faith than the Turkish president. Eric Edelman, who served as U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2003 to 2005, told me that when he served at the embassy, he never heard from Erdogan's government any complaints about Gulen's status as an asylum seeker in the U.S. "In those days they were thick as thieves," he said.

Edelman did say however that when he met with followers of Gulen, they would usually warn of coup plotters inside the military. "This doesn't mean they were not behind this coup, but we ought to have evidence before we extradite him," he said.

Erdogan's relationship with Gulen soured in late 2013. That was when a federal prosecutor opened a case against four ministers in Erdogan's government over a huge corruption scandal. Erdogan and his supporters accused the prosecutor, Zekeriya Oz, of being a part of Gulen's shadow government inside the Turkish state. The corruption scandal was seen as a declaration of political war.

Over the weekend, Erdogan and his supporters accused Gulen of turning that political war into a shooting war. The question is whether Turkey can back up that claim.  Gulen's future in America will depend on it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net