Why Erdoğan, despite bluster, may actually not want Gulen extradition

The septuagenarian cleric, living in exile in Pennsylvania, is the inspiration behind a pro-democracy movement in Turkey whose adherents had become increasingly concerned with Erdoğan's authoritarianism.

Selahattin Sevi/AP/File
Turkish Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, pictured here in 2013 at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pa., was tried in absentia in 2000 for seeking to overthrow the secular government.

For Americans who doubt that a septuagenarian Turkish cleric living quietly in the Pennsylvania Poconos could really be the mastermind behind a nearly successful coup attempt in Turkey last week, the country’s powerful President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his backers have only three words.

Osama bin Laden.

Admonishing the US government to remember how the Al Qaeda leader orchestrated the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan, Turkish officials on Tuesday announced that a formal request for extradition of the “terrorist” cleric Fethullah Gulen had been presented to the US along with four files of evidentiary documents.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said no one asked the US to prove that Osama bin Laden was behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Addressing the US on Tuesday, he said, “Do not protect this traitor any more.”

Mr. Gulen, who fled charges of seeking to overthrow Turkey's secular government in 1999, is the inspiration behind a pro-democracy movement whose adherents had become increasingly alarmed at President Erdoğan’s creeping authoritarianism.

Yet despite Turkey's sharp rhetoric and the formal extradition request for Gulen, some wonder if Erdoğan might really prefer that his rival remain in the US as a convenient scapegoat – and not risk whipping up his considerable support by returning him to Turkey.

“He is more politically beneficial [to Erdoğan] in the US under threat of extradition than to actually do it,” says Aaron Stein, an expert in US-Turkey relations at the Atlantic Council in Washington. Erdoğan can use the perceived threat that many Turks feel the Gulenists pose to the Turkish state, without getting into the complex and distracting business of proving Gulen’s guilt.

A case “against [Gulen] in international court … would clearly fall apart,” Mr. Stein says.

The soft-spoken Gulen – a onetime Erdoğan ally – says that as a democrat he abhors coups and would never have encouraged one, let alone conspired to carry one out.

Though Gulen's Hizmet movement commands significant support in government institutions – including the military – in Turkey, establishing grounds for extradition remains a long shot, many experts in US-Turkey relations say. For one thing, the extradition agreement between the two countries speaks of specific crimes that warrant extradition but does not include treason as one of them.

US risking Turkish cooperation on ISIS

After Secretary of State John Kerry cautioned Monday that any extradition request concerning Mr. Gulen would have to be based on evidence and not merely accusations, Turkish officials questioned America’s commitment to a NATO ally in its dark moment and warned of dire consequences if the US rebuffs Turkey – suggesting turbulence ahead for bilateral relations.

“We’re going to be on a rocky road in US-Turkey relations for a while,” says Matthew Bryza, a former US diplomat in central Asia who is now a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council in Turkey.  

The Gulen extradition case will remain the bone in the craw of a relationship that has often teetered on the brink of crisis. But a deep rift between the two NATO allies would come at a particularly bad moment for the US, as it had only recently convinced Turkey to wholeheartedly sign on to the US-led campaign against the self-declared Islamic State (IS) in Turkey’s southern neighbor of Syria.

It could also limit Washington's ability to exert a moderating influence as Erdoğan seeks to purge his government of suspected conspirators.

The US and other Western partners should not ostracize Turkey, some experts say, but should continue to pressure it not to go too far in its purging in the wake of the failed coup.

“Now is not the time to create a division between Turkey and the rest of us,” Bryza says. On the other hand, he adds, “now it’s time to make sure [Turkey] doesn’t overshoot in its response.”

First WhatsApp coup attempt?

The lack of a strong legal case against Gulen would not necessarily mean there were no grounds for suspecting the Gulenist movement, others say.

Hizmet has long been considered almost a state within the state, and in that context comes a coup attempt that is so well coordinated and comprehensive and involving such highly placed officials that it clearly had to have had some organization and “ideology “ behind it, Ambassador Bryza says.

“That feeds into the narrative of Erdoğan,” he says. The level of coordination was apparent in the coup plotters’ use of the WhatsApp messenger application that is fully encrypted and allowed the coup’s organizers to plan and deliver orders in secrecy.

So far, American calls for restraint do not appear to be getting through. In addition to detentions of perhaps thousands of security forces – the Gulenists are thought to be particularly strong within the police – the government has suspended hundreds of judges and on Tuesday extended the purge to the country’s education system.

The detention of up to a third of the country’s senior military officers does not bode well for Turkey’s continued attention to the fight against the Islamic State, some experts note – even as they wonder if a relentless purge and stepped-up authoritarian drive by Erdoğan will only enhance the charismatic appeal of an elderly cleric in a Pennsylvania retreat.

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