The White House is looking for ways to remove self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen from the US in order to placate Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, two senior American officials and two other people were reported as saying by NBC News on November 15.
Trump administration officials last month reportedly asked federal law enforcement agencies to examine legal ways of removing the preacher—a former ally of Erdogan who became an enemy and the man whom Ankara claims was ultimately responsible for orchestrating the failed coup d’etat that took place in Turkey in July 2016—in an effort to persuade Erdogan to ease pressure on Saudi Arabia over who bears responsibility for the horrific killing of Khashoggi in the Saudis’ Istanbul consulate on October 2.
The four sources were cited as saying that the White House effort includes directives issued to the US Justice Department and FBI requesting that officials reopen Turkey's case for the extradition of Gulen—who has strenuously denied that he or his Gulenist network were behind the attempted coup—as well as a request to the Homeland Security Department for information about his legal status. Specific details about Gulen's residency status in the US were apparently sought. Gulen is reported to have a Green Card. He has been living in the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center in rural Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania for more than a decade.
Career officials at the agencies were said to have pushed back on the White House requests. "At first there were eye rolls, but once they realised it was a serious request, the career guys were furious," a senior US official involved in the process was quoted as saying.
The secret effort indicates the White House could be looking for ways to contain Erdogan's very public anger over the brutal murder. The Turkish president has acted in a manner that strongly suggests he wants to see the removal of Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. However, bin Salman is a key ally to the US in its attempt at throttling Iran’s economy to secure concessions from Tehran on its role in Middle East affairs, while he also holds the final say on hundreds of billions of dollars of contracts for US arms supplies and other trade and investment.
Attempts to resolve the scandal surrounding the murder of Khashoggi have been complicated by Erdogan’s officials leaking a steady procession of evidence on the killing, including covertly recorded audio said to offer a shocking window on what occurred inside the consulate. It is still not clear whether Turkey is in possession of evidence that could once and for all demonstrate whether the crown prince, known as MbS, does or does not bear culpability for the assassination of the Riyadh critic.
Immediately after Khashoggi’s disappearance, the Saudis claimed he had exited the consulate after completing his visit to deal with paperwork required to enable him to remarry. However, CCTV cameras failed to show any such departure and Saudi Arabia’s story by now is that a “rogue” team of agents journeyed to Istanbul and, without having briefed MbS on what they intended to do, killed Khashoggi thinking the move would please the crown prince. Many Western officials have briefed media that they find the idea that apparently highly loyal agents would act in such a way without informing MbS incredible.
Saudis recommend death penalty for five suspects
On November 15, Saudi Arabia's top prosecutor. Saud al-Mojeb, recommended the death penalty for five out of 11 suspects charged with killing Khashoggi. A total of 21 suspects have been arrested in connection with the case, he said.
The Saudis and Turks are two Middle East power brokers that have long been at odds over issues including the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, Istanbul’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood political Sunni Islamists who lost power in Egypt, which parties to support in the Syria Civil War and how to deal with Israel when it comes to the plight of the Israelis. Unlike the Saudis, Turkey is not a supporter of the US economic attack on Tehran, Riyadh’s regional arch-rival.
Erdogan has for years demanded the US extradite Gulen to Turkey.
One option that Turkish and Trump administration officials recently discussed is forcing Gulen to relocate to South Africa rather than sending him directly to Turkey if extradition is not possible, said the US officials and people briefed on the discussions quoted by NBC. But the US does not have any legal justification to send Gulen to South Africa, they said, so that wouldn't be a viable option unless he went willingly.
Atilla release ‘discussed’
Trump and Erdogan also recently discussed another option to relieve tensions between Washington and Ankara, namely the release of Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, sources told the news outlet. He was sentenced in May to 32 months in prison by a New York federal judge for his role in a scheme to evade US sanctions against Iran. Erdogan has criticised the case against Atilla as a political attack aimed at undermining his government and has even claimed that the Gulenist network was behind it.
Gulen is an influential Islamist cleric who has lived in self-imposed exile in the US for almost two decades. His wide network of followers are known as "Gulenistas." His movement includes a range of nonprofit organisations, businesses and schools, both in the US and other countries including South Africa.
In remarks to reporters travelling with him recently, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged having discussed Gulen with the Turks. "We did talk about Fethullah Gulen and we talked about the set of issues surrounding that organisation as well," Pompeo said. "It's something that the Turks remind us of often, and we're mindful of places that we can work with them to make sure that we all have a shared set of facts as well. But it's mostly not a State Department issue; it's mostly a Justice Department issue."
Turkey provided boxes of materials to the US two years ago that Erdogan said demonstrated that Gulen was behind the failed coup. But Justice Department and FBI officials did not find any evidence that met the standard for extradition