Whenever I talk with another Turk about the Gulen movement, a question invariably props up: is the CIA behind Gulen? In fact for most Turks this is a rather rhetorical question, with an incontrovertible answer. The belief that Gulen and his activities are orchestrated by the U.S. is as strongly held as it is widespread among Turks of all political coloration – secular or Islamist.
This is my attempt at providing a reasoned answer to the question. My conclusion in brief: I don’t think Gulen is a tool of the U.S. or has received support from the U.S. for its clandestine operations. But it is possible that some elements within the U.S. national security apparatus think Gulen furthers their agenda, is worth protecting on U.S. soil, and have so far prevailed on other voices in the establishment with different views. Regardless, the U.S. needs to seriously reconsider its attitude towards Gulen and his movement.
Those who believe the U.S. is behind Gulen typically make two arguments. First, they point to how Gulen got his green card in the first place. The long list of individuals who wrote letters of recommendations on Gulen’s behalf includes two long-time CIA employees (George Fidas and Graham Fuller) and a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey (Morton Abramowitz). These individuals write in their individual capacities and their advocacy was based both on Gulen’s persecution by the then-secularist Turkish judiciary and on Gulen’s apparent promotion of a moderate brand of Islam.
On the latter question, at least, it is fair to assume that these recommenders had only limited knowledge of Gulen’s full corpus, which includes some fairly incendiary stuff against Jews, Christians, the United States, and Western Europe. (Some years ago I showed one of the letter writers a particularly anti-semitic sermons and asked him if he was aware of it; he said he had no idea.)
However, the more important point about his green card that – and one that is overlooked in Turkey -- is that the U.S. administration was in fact opposed to giving Gulen a green card. It rejected Gulen’s application, and then strenuously objected in court when Gulen’s lawyers appealed. Lawyers for the Department of Homeland Security were scathing about Gulen’s qualifications and argued there was no evidence he was an individual of exceptional ability in the field of education: “far from being an academic, plaintiff seeks to cloak himself with academic status by commissioning academics to write about him and paying for conferences at which his work is studied.”
Gulen owes his residency not to the U.S. executive branch (and whichever intelligence agency may be hiding behind it), but to a federal judge with scant interest in foreign policy or intelligence matters who somehow nonetheless ruled in his favor. The judge’s argument was that the Administration had construed the relevant field of “education” too narrowly, and should have considered Gulen’s contributions to other areas such as “theology, political science, and Islamic studies.”
The second argument is that Gulen and his followers would not have been so successful in spreading their empire and influence without active U.S. support. I think this severely underestimates the movement’s own capabilities. Gulen has long stressed education, organization, and secrecy. His movement has invested in raising a “golden generation” of smart, well-trained individuals. Lack of resources has never been a constraint, thanks to the contributions of an army of devout businessmen. As the AKP found out to its own chagrin, its most capable and competent public servants turned out to be serving a different master in Pennsylvania. And in any case, this argument exaggerates U.S.’ own capabilities in my view: given the CIA’s history of blunders, there is in fact much that it could learn from the Gulen movement on cloak-and-dagger operations.
The critical question here is whether there is anything the movement has done that it could not have done without active U.S. backing. Did it really need the help of some U.S. intelligence agency to expand its charter-school network, to stage the Sledgehammer trial, or to infiltrate and organize within the Turkish military? I don’t think so.
The U.S. government may not have had a direct hand in Gulen’s activities, but it is more difficult to dismiss the argument that it provided tacit support – or that some parts of the U.S. administration prevailed on other parts who were less keen on Gulen.
Judging by Wikileaks cables, U.S. diplomats in Turkey were exceptionally knowledgeable about Gulenist activities. These cables are in fact a goldmine of information on the Gulen movement. Form these we learn, among others, about the elaborate ruses used by Gulenist sympathizers to infiltrate the Turkish army, Gulen’s request for support from the Jewish Rabbinate’s during his green card application, and the attempt by sympathizers within the Turkish national police to get a “clean bill of health” for Gulen from the U.S. consulate in Istanbul. We also learn that even in the heyday of their alliance, Gulenists presciently regarded Erdogan as a liability.
Perhaps of more direct interest to the U.S., foreign service officers have long been aware that many Turks have been obtaining visas under false pretenses, with the ultimate aim of ending up as teachers in Gulen’s charter schools. Yet apparently nothing was ever done to stop this flow, nor to hold the movement to account. A ridiculous number of H-1B visas -- which require demonstration that no qualified U.S. workers are available -- have been issued to Turkish teachers in these schools. One naturally wonders why the U.S. administration never clamped down on the Gulen movement for apparent visa fraud.
The same question arises with respect to the widespread pattern of financial improprieties that has been uncovered in Gulen’s charter schools. A whistleblower has provided evidence that Turkish teachers are required to kick back a portion of their salary to the movement. The FBI has seized documents revealing preferential awarding of contracts to Turkish-connected businesses. Such improprieties are apparently still under investigation. But the slow pace at which the government has moved does make one suspect that there is no overwhelming desire to bring Gulen to justice.
Gulen typically defends himself against such charges by saying that the schools are run by sympathizers and are not directly under his control. Yet the fact is that he took direct credit for the schools in his green card application, saying he had overseen their establishment.
Then there is the Sledgehammer case, which has the Gulen movement’s fingerprints all over it. This and the closely related Ergenekon trials did untold damage to the military of U.S.’ Nato ally. The jailing of hundreds of officers, including a former chief of staff, sowed a climate of fear and suspicion within the army and sapped military morale. Perhaps the U.S. was bamboozled, like many others, early on about these trials. But by now it should know that these sham trials were launched and stage managed by Gulenists. American officials have been quick to complain in public about the damage the post-coup purge has done to Turkish military capabilities. Yet there was not a peep from them during the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer witch hunts; and nor has the U.S. administration expressed any discontent about the Gulen movement’s role in them since.
The failed coup
The mystery only deepens after the botched coup. The U.S. has demanded credible evidence from Turkey on Gulen’s involvement, which is as it should be. But beyond that, it appears from the outside as if administration officials have been interested mostly in throwing cold water on the Turkish government’s claim that Gulen was behind the coup – a claim that is largely justified.
The most egregious example is that of James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence. Asked whether Turkish allegations that Gulen planned the attempted coup passed the “smell test” of credibility, Clapper answered: “No. Not to me.” Clapper said Secretary of State Kerry “was right on the ball” to press the Turks to back up their extradition request with evidence of Gulen’s involvement, adding: “We haven’t seen it yet. We certainly haven’t seen it in intel.”
Now coming from the head of American intelligence, this is no less than a stunning statement. As the Wikileaks cables I referred to above make clear, the State Department, at least, has been well aware of Gulenist infiltration of the Turkish military for quite some time. The Gulenists’s role in Sledgehammer, which led to the discharge of many of the most Kemalist/secularist officers in the military is equally clear. Beyond Sledgehammer, the Gulenists’ wide range of clandestine operations against opponents in Turkey must be well known to American intelligence. So when the most senior intelligence officer in the U.S. instinctively brushes off Gulen’s possible involvement, it looks awfully like he is either incompetent or has something to hide.
Since Clapper’s statement was made, the head of the Turkish military, who was held hostage by the putschists during the coup attempt, has said that one of his captors offered to put him in touch with Gulen directly. This, on its own, is prima facie evidence of Gulen’s involvement, and likely passes the “probable cause” test that is required for extradition. Incredibly, administration officials are still quoted as saying “there is no credible evidence of Mr. Gulen’s personal involvement.” In other words, these officials must think that the army chief of their NATO ally is lying.
(I will not get into former CIA official Graham Fuller’s silly piece exonerating the Gulen movement, which is at best woefully uninformed, at worst willfully misleading. Fuller has been retired for some time, and I doubt he is playing any role in administration policy.)
So what the hell is going on here?
In light of the confusing signals that come out of the U.S., and the apparent desire of many people in or close to the administration to defend Gulen, it’s not difficult to empathize with those in Turkey who believe the U.S. must be behind Gulen (and, yes, even the coup attempt). I think it is too farfetched to think that the U.S. knew of beforehand or supported the coup. There were far too many risks and too few benefits for the U.S. to be involved. And contrary to what many people in Turkey believe, U.S. intelligence is far from omniscient – so yes, the coup likely did happen without U.S. knowledge.
But it is not farfetched to think that there are some groups in the administration – perhaps in the intelligence branches – who have been protecting Gulen because they think he is useful to U.S. foreign policy interests. This could be because Gulen’s brand/mask of moderate Islam is a rare thing in that part of the world. It could be because taking Gulen down would only benefit groups in Turkey they consider more inimical to U.S. interests – Erdogan’s AKP and the arch-secularists. It is even possible that the movement has occasionally performed services for U.S. intel operations. (Some of Gulen’s schools in Central Asia were used to “shelter” American spies according to a former Turkish intelligence chief.) That kind of thing would not be beneath either the CIA or the Gulen movement.
Perhaps these groups have so far have had the better of the argument and have held the upper hand in the administration against those in State or elsewhere who know full well what the Gulen movement is up to and would rather see him go. In the aftermath of the coup, perhaps this balance will change in favor of the latter. Perhaps not. Whether it does or not, I think the Gulen issue will ultimately explode in somebody’s face in the U.S. The only questions are whose, and when.
I would be the first to admit that this is just a hypothesis. But if there is a better story that explains the U.S. reaction I’d love to hear it.
It is very unlikely that Gulen would receive a fair trial in Turkey. So the U.S. has a legitimate ground for not extraditing him. But the U.S. foreign policy establishment would be making a very big mistake if they simply dismissed the calls from Turkey about Gulen’s complicity. It is easy for the U.S. to hide behind Erdogan’s clampdown and the ill treatment of the putschists. But the U.S. has considerable explaining to do too.