WASHINGTON (AP) — A senior State Department official said Monday that Turkey's contention that a Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric and his followers were involved in the failed coup attempt may have some merit, even as the Obama administration says Turkey has provided little evidence to support their claim.
Ankara is accusing Fethullah Gulen of orchestrating the attempted military coup in July, which left more than 270 people dead, and is asking the U.S. to extradite him. Gulen denies any involvement and has condemned the attempted coup and the U.S. is reviewing Turkey's request. The official told reporters there are "reasonable grounds" to take the Turkish government's accusations against Gulen seriously. The official held a briefing for reporters but insisted on anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Gulen, a former ally turned foe of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been living in the United States in self-imposed exile for more than 15 years. Gulen proclaims the importance of peace and education and his organization runs charities, business groups, schools and hospitals around the world, including a network of charter schools across the U.S.
The State Department official said that charity and educational organizations run by Gulen have suspicious structure and financing and look "a lot like the ways in which organized crime sets itself up of folks who are trying to hide money for money laundering" rather than a "benign religious movement."
The briefing comes several days after Turkey's justice minister met with Attorney General Loretta Lynch to press the extradition request. Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag compared Gulen to Osama Bin Laden and warned that Washington's failure to hand Gulen over could seriously hurt bilateral ties. Washington views Turkey, a NATO member, as an important ally in the region in fighting terrorism.
The State Department official said the United States government is examining Turkey's evidence against Gulen, but added that the evidence so far concerns alleged crimes committed by Gulen prior to the coup.
Bozdag said last week that some of the coup plotters have confessed to taking orders from Gulen. He also said that Gulen was receiving secret recordings of conversations of a top Turkish official provided to the cleric by one of his followers.
Gulen's lawyers insist that Turkey's case against their client does not satisfy the U.S. requirements for extradition and that all confessions made by his followers in Turkey were obtained under duress.
Since the failed coup, Turkish authorities have arrested close to 37,000 people and more than 100,000 people have been dismissed or suspended from government jobs after the coup, causing an outcry from international human rights organizations.
The State Department official said that the crackdown was "more reminiscent of what you see in authoritarian countries," and added that Washington will continue to urge Ankara both publicly and privately to abide by democratic norms.