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Is Turkey ready for global manhunt for Fethullah Gulen?

The Turkish government and its media outlets hope the new US administration will hand over the suspected mastermind of the failed coup, but what if Fethullah Gulen decides to play an international cat-and-mouse game with Turkey?
U.S. based cleric Fethullah Gulen at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, U.S. July 29, 2016.  REUTERS/Charles Mostoller - RTSKAK8

The world is a rough place these days for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Economic and political problems and domestic unrest in addition to serious security threats in Syria and Iraq are causing major headaches for the Turkish leader and his government.

But there is some positive news for Erdogan and the AKP.

Donald Trump’s election raised hopes in Turkey that Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen would be extradited to Ankara when the new American commander-in-chief takes office on Jan. 20. Turks from across the political spectrum accuse Gulen and his followers — which they label the Fethullah Gulen Terror Organization, or FETO — of masterminding the failed coup attempt in July. They expect Washington to take steps against the Gulenist network.

Trump’s choice for national security adviser, retired US Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who lobbied on behalf of the Turkish government prior to the elections, bodes well for Ankara. On the day of the election, Flynn wrote an article in which he compared Gulen to Osama bin Laden and called upon the United States to “not provide him safe haven.”

Turkey has already scored some points against Gulen on the international scene. In September, the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq seized Gulenist schools on its territory and sold them. In October, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) listed Gulen and his network as a “terror group.”

The GCC and OIC designations are especially important because the latter represents the world’s 57 Muslim states. In late July, pro-AKP media outlets had claimed that the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a GCC member, had cooperated with Gulenists in the failed coup along with former Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan. The decisions by two of the Muslim world’s most influential groups are an important victory for Ankara.

But the situation is far from ideal for Erdogan and the AKP government. When President-elect Donald Trump moves into the White House in January, just like his predecessor, Barack Obama, he may not be able to circumvent cumbersome US laws and regulations for extradition and just hand Gulen over to Erdogan.

At any rate, Gulen could leave the United States before risking a confrontation with the Trump administration and take up residence in a country that does not have an extradition treaty with Turkey.

The pro-AKP daily newspaper Sabah already has gamed that scenario, suggesting three countries that stand out as possible new homes for Gulen. The first is Belgium, which has a history of harboring armed groups that target Turkey. Canada is another alternative because of its proximity to Pennsylvania. Brazil is a potential destination because, Sabah claims, the Brazilian Senate’s recent “impeachment coup” against former President Dilma Rousseff makes it an ideal choice for Gulenists. Hamidullah Ozturk, Gulen’s imam who allegedly organized the group’s networks within the Turkish armed forces, apparently went to Brazil two years ago and is facilitating his master’s possible move to the South American country.

If Gulen does move to a third country over which Turkey lacks influence, what options would Ankara have? For example, could Egypt, which has had poor relations with Turkey since its own coup in July 2013, host Gulen? After all, in the wake of Turkey’s failed coup, a member of the Egyptian parliament had suggested that Cairo should offer Gulen asylum.

An Egyptian researcher based in Washington who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity ruled out that possibility. He said the idea to give Gulen asylum in Egypt has “no policy substance at all. … I honestly think it was motivated by pettiness — hit back at Erdogan for the sake of hitting back at Erdogan. … The Egyptian state hates all Islamists and yet [the parliament member who raised the idea] wants to give Gulen, an Islamist, asylum?”

Another reason Gulen would find Egypt inhospitable is that Cairo’s main regional supporters, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, would hesitate to offend Ankara.

But even if Egypt does not grant Gulen asylum, there are over 190 countries in the world, and less than 20 of them (aside from European Union members) have extradition agreements with Turkey.

If Gulen were to move to a country that does not extradite criminals and suspected criminals to Ankara, does Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT), judiciary, Foreign Ministry, police and armed forces have the wherewithal to pursue and bring him and his followers to justice?

Erhan Canikoglu, a retired MIT operative who writes extensively on intelligence and espionage matters for his website IntelTurk, is skeptical. For one, he thinks Gulen and his network are in the service of US and other Western intelligence agencies. Canikoglu told Al-Monitor, “I don’t think it would be easy [for the West] to give up on [Gulen]. … Letting Gulen leave the United States means he could be captured like [Abdullah] Ocalan and brought to Turkey. That would mean Gulen’s schools around the world will cease to offer advantages [to the West].” (MIT apprehended Kurdistan Workers Party leader Ocalan in Kenya in 1999 with US and Israeli assistance. He remains in prison.)

He added that even if Gulen were to leave the United States, world “intelligence agencies, through their own means or by cooperating with each other, could determine which country Gulen would go and do everything they can to catch him.”

Would Turkish intelligence be among them? Canikoglu thinks it would take a new cadre and a change of leadership in MIT and a consistent focus on Gulen to deliver the exiled cleric to justice.

It probably would take several years and tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars to train a critical mass of new experts and direct more senior MIT personnel to lead those younger operatives in Gulen’s case. And without the contribution of other agencies, especially ministries like defense, interior, foreign affairs and justice, Turkey’s attempts to bring Gulen home will have limited impact. In other words, if Turkey really wants to capture Gulen or at least disrupt and degrade his network, it needs to step up its legal, diplomatic and intelligence game.

A big part of that process will involve halting the ongoing pursuit of occasional sympathizers inside Turkey who maybe once donated to Gulen’s network or bought a few of his books. The same goes for academics and intellectuals who had only tenuous ties to Gulenists and no longer cooperate with Pennsylvania’s most famous resident.

In short, if Turkey wants to succeed against Gulen abroad, it needs to rebuild its domestic strength, because domestic peace is the greatest foreign policy weapon. And that strength will come only if Erdogan and his AKP end their crackdown on their opponents and build a more inclusive political system in Turkey.