WikiLeaked: 5 Things to Know About the Islamist Empire Trying to Take Down Erdogan

If the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan falls, a large portion of the blame -- or credit, depending on your perspective -- will lie with a little-known Muslim cleric named Fethullah Gulen and his shadowy, globe-spanning empire. Over the past decade, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been in a quiet struggle with Gulen's followers for control of the country's Islamist politics. That's a battle that's mostly taken place behind closed doors -- but not anymore.

As a central player in Turkish politics, Gulen has frequently gained the attention of U.S. officials, both in Washington and Turkey. As detailed in the 155 diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks which mention him, U.S. officials have struggled to make sense of the man, but their collected writings on Gulen provide a snapshot of how deeply he and his followers have penetrated the Turkish state and illustrate what a severe threat he poses to the Erdogan government.

Here are five takeaways from Gulen's appearances in the WikiLeaks cables.

This isn't the first time the Gulen Movement has taken on Erdogan and the AKP.

The Gulen movement frequently claims it is not a political organization, but it's generally acknowledged that Gulen's followers are disproportionately represented in Turkey's National Police. One U.S. embassy cable from 2009 states that "the assertion that the [Turkish National Police, TNP] is controlled by Gulenists is impossible to confirm but we have found no one who disputes it, and we have heard accounts that TNP applicants who stay at Gulenist pensions are provided the answers in advance to the TNP entrance exam." In 2005, two years into Erdogan's term and during an early spate of Gulenist disillusionment with the AKP, a TNP corruption investigation began honing in on AKP officials. The Erdogan government intervened, transferring the head of the TNP's organized crime office to a regional outpost -- and off the case. According to a June 2005 U.S. embassy cable, the transfer was arranged by Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu, whose "Kurdish favoritism, reported ties to the heroin trade, well-known predilection for teenage girls, and his son's open Mafia links make him a weak link in the cabinet."

As corruption investigations are again targeting AKP leaders, Erdogan has once again gone back to his 2005 playbook and begun transferring and outright firing corruption investigators in the Turkish National Police.

The Gulen Movement and the AKP had a common enemy ... but not anymore.

After the 2005 corruption investigation, the Gulenist pressure on the AKP seems to have slackened, and before long they found a common enemy again: the deep state, a concept which in Turkey typically refers to a cabal of powerful secular nationalists, predominantly in the military, who have periodically ousted Islamist-leaning governments in Ankara. Both the AKP and the Gulen Movement were once targets of Turkey's secularist establishment. The Gulenists in the TNP turned their attentions to anti-democratic forces within the military and, as detailed in U.S. embassy cables, in 2008 began targeting the deep state with indictments. Documents detailing an alleged planned coup to oust the AKP and undermine the Gulen Movement were leaked to Gulenist newspapers, which ran with the story. That led to the country's landmark Ergenekon trials and the conviction of about 330 military officers.

The Gulen Movement is a quiet-but-powerful business, media, and education empire.

At the heart of the Gulenist Movement is Gulen himself, a cleric and a former member of Turkey's state-backed professional religious establishment, the Diyanet, who ran afoul of the government in the 1980s for sermons that secularist officials felt went too far. He was brought up on charges under Turkey's extremely broad anti-terrorism law for comments that "our friends, who have positions in legislative and administrative bodies, should learn its details and be vigilant all the time so they can transform [the bureaucracy] and be more fruitful on behalf of Islam in order to carry out a nationwide restoration." (Turkish secularists feared such sermons came a little too close to suggesting infiltrating and undermining Turkey's secular state.) 

U.S. embassy cables, citing Turkish sources knowledgeable about the movement, estimate the movement may have anywhere from 2 million to 5 million adherents. Many of them are well-placed, holding public office or working in the police or judiciary. The organization supports a number of entrepreneurial ventures, and much of the movement's wealth -- which is thought to be a considerable fortune, the size of which is masked by the variety of charitable interests through which it filters -- stems from convoluted business conglomerations and trade associations. Gulenist businessmen have paid forward this noblesse by establishing a network of science-focused schools around the world, particularly in Central Asia and Africa, but also in the United States.

Gulenist school advocates have said that they are based on Gulen's teachings. Teachers at a Gulen school in Ankara stressed to embassy officials that "this is not a political movement." Instead, they said, schools are based on the vague, mystic adages of Gulen that "whomever is not everywhere is nowhere" and that "you must be globalized to be localized." That's hard to square with admissions that Gulenists have made in less guarded moments, though -- like when the head of a Gulenist-affiliated journalist association, the Journalists and Writers Foundation, "openly credited Fethullah Gulen with the vision to open schools in Central Asian countries just after the fall of the USSR. The reason was straightforward: beat the Iranians to Central Asia with the 'smiling face of Islam' Turkish style." Statements like that have worried Central Asian governments and the spread of schools has been a consistent sore point in Turkey's relations with the region.

The AKP and Gulenists are in an ideological battle over what the future of political Islam in Turkey should be.

As the AKP was elected to office in 2002 and 2003, it did so with the support of the Gulen Movement, and several prominent Gulenists were given key posts in the new government. Around the same time, in March 2003, Gulen was acquitted of terrorism charges, though he has chosen to remain in the United States since first arriving for medical treatment in 1999. Initially, their cooperation seemed strong: In the early months of the AKP government, politicians began discussing a voucher program to make Gulenist private schools accessible to more students.

But then Gulenist politicians in the party reportedly pressed the government to move forward with morality reforms, like a controversial law to ban adultery, before the AKP leadership felt it was ready. By the end of 2004, Gulenist politicians began telling U.S. officials that they were "ambivalent" about Erdogan and the AKP. A leading Gulenist, "said to have influence over 60 or more AKP" members of parliament, "expressed to [to embassy officials] the Gulenists' sense that Erdogan cannot hack it." Then came the TNP's 2005 aborted corruption probe of the AKP. The Gulenists and AKP leadership managed to patch things up while they tackled the country's secularist military, but now that alliance of convenience has come to an end.

Though both the AKP and Gulenists profess to be moderate political Islamist movements, they draw their inspiration from different ideological traditions. The AKP's leadership adheres to a different core belief, Milli Gorus or "the National View," an ideology descended from ousted Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan which has been described as "Turkey's version of political Islam with anti-Western and pan-Islamic overtones." Gulen's following is founded on the work of turn-of-the-century Kurdish Sufi scholar Bediuzzaman Said Nursi and places more emphasis on cultural outreach with the world. While the difference is a nuance to outsiders, the ideological split has been a wedge in the AKP from the start, and the Milli Gorus leadership of the party has consistently rankled the Gulenists in the government.

No one can get a straight answer out of the Gulen Movement, and that's left many worried about its intentions.

Despite living in the United States for more than a decade, the cables from the U.S. embassy in Ankara exposed by WikiLeaks show that the U.S. government is still struggling to understand the motives and interests of the Gulen movement, and even Gulen himself. He "was born between 1938-1942" one cable states, noting that "varying dates have been given." In another, embassy officials say that they couldn't get a straight answer on information as simple as Gulen's marital status.

Some of the organization's secrecy can be explained by the caution it learned while being persecuted by secularist Turkish authorities in the 1990s, but that hasn't put U.S. officials at ease. In May 2006, the U.S. consulate in Ankara filed a lengthy cable detailing the strange dissembling and obfuscation that characterized Gulenists's visa applications and trends that suggested that they had been coached both to hide their Gulen affiliation and on how to make their applications more successful.

The secrecy with which Gulen operates has been fodder for conspiracy theories. Some of his Islamist detractors believe Gulen is a U.S.-funded mole in the religious establishment, trying to disrupt the ranks of political Islam from within; secularists fear he is a "scheming crypto-Mullah, plotting to turn Turkey into a sharia-based Islamic state little different than Iran." Not even the Gulen Movement's friends completely trust its intentions. In public, Gulen has professed a belief in an open, inclusive, democratic society, and the movement maintains close ties with the Orthodox Christian and Jewish communities in Turkey, but when Gulen approached Istanbul's chief rabbi in 2005 for a letter of support to help Gulen extend his stay in the United States, the rabbi told U.S. officials in private that he was wary of the movement's ultimate intentions.

*Disclosure: The Alliance for Shared Values, a non-profit organization associated with the Gulen movement, has sponsored several events hosted by Foreign Policy.

OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images


Maliki's Deputy Blames Him for Fallujah's Fall

AMMAN — On Jan. 10, al Qaeda fighters raised their "black flag" over a government building in Fallujah, proclaiming their return to the western Iraqi city that U.S. forces had driven them from years earlier, at the cost of thousands of Iraqi lives.  The moment highlighted the jihadist group's resurgence in Anbar Province, one of the most restive areas during the U.S. occupation of the country and a region that has increasingly seemed beyond the control of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.

The Iraqi government's loss of Fallujah at first appeared to set the stage for an even bloodier military confrontation, as the army shelled what it claimed were al Qaeda strongholds in the city. Yesterday, however, Maliki ruled out a direct assault on the city, saying that he was determined to drive out the jihadists "without any bloodshed."

Maliki has blamed the war in neighboring Syria for the upsurge in violence, and vowed to launch a countrywide "cleanup" campaign against al Qaeda after the army drives the jihadists from Anbar. For Anbar's top politicians, however, Maliki himself is the cause of the country's most dangerous political crisis since the U.S. withdrawal in 2011.

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq -- a former member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party before being expelled in 1977 -- told Foreign Policy that the government in Baghdad was using al Qaeda as a pretext to crack down on its political opponents. Marginalization of Sunni Arabs, Mutlaq added, was leading to their radicalization. And even as he deplored the U.S. invasion for being the root cause of Iraq's problems, he called on Washington to intervene in Iraqi politics to save the country from disaster.

"Yes, I do blame [the Americans]," he said. "And I expect them to do some changes in Iraq now. Not necessarily through military operations, but through political pressure and economic pressure on Iraqi politicians, to make sure that Iraqis feel that they are equal in their own country."

It's hard to think of a less likely country for Mutlaq to place his faith in than the United States. He blames Washington for destroying the foundation of the Iraqi state with the 2003 invasion, for paving the way for what he views as Iran-linked Shiite extremist groups to take power in Baghdad, and for placing the Iraqi Army and intelligence organizations in the hands of officers bent on the elimination of any Sunni influence in the country.

"We were listening to Mr. Obama when he was saying, 'we will withdraw [from Iraq], but withdraw in a responsible way,'" Mutlaq said. "But in fact, the way he did it was irresponsible. Because he left a vacuum behind him that was filled by the Iranians."

But with the United States one of the few countries that could influence Maliki's rule, he is heading to Washington this week to make the case that U.S. officials should pressure Baghdad to govern inclusively.

While Iraqi security officials have claimed that Fallujah is fully under the control the al Qaeda-linked group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Mutlaq contended that the situation in the city was considerably more complex. He said that ISIS was present, but that its influence was "very minimal" compared to that of tribal groups and local residents.

A botched Iraqi military operation over the past month has been partially responsible for driving Anbar residents into open rebellion. On Dec. 21, a roadside bomb killed the commander of the Army's 7th Division in Anbar, prompting Maliki to send reinforcements to the province. But instead of using the army to move against al Qaeda, he tore down a major Sunni anti-government protest site in the provincial capital of Ramadi and arrested a prominent Sunni legislator from the region. Mutlaq had previously been attacked by the demonstrators at the Ramadi protest for working with Maliki's government.

The crackdown on popular dissent has led to accusations that Maliki is conflating the jihadists and his political opponents, and leaving Sunnis with no other recourse but to resort to violence.

"Until now, Sunnis are not willing to participate [in the political process] because they feel that there is no future through participation," Mutlaq said. "This will make another disaster in the country, because the Sunnis are being squeezed -- and if they are squeezed to an extent, they will make an explosion."

In the wake of the uprising, Baghdad has implored the United States to immediately send advanced weaponry that it claims would be used to fight al Qaeda. Washington has responded by sending the Iraqi government Hellfire missiles and surveillance drones, but the Senate is still mulling the sale of dozens of Apache attack helicopters to Iraq. In an interview with the Washington Times last week, the Iraqi ambassador to Washington blasted the White House for neglecting its relationship with Baghdad.

"The administration has to have a better understanding of any adverse impact of any delay in provision of support to Iraq," Ambassador Lukman Faily said. "It cannot afford a whole town or province of Iraq falling to al Qaeda and becoming a safe haven."

The proposed sale has placed Maliki's opponents in a bind: While they don't want to be in the position of denying the army needed equipment, they also fear that new weaponry will be used by the prime minister to crack down on his rivals rather than the jihadist threat.

Mutlaq made the case that the United States should pair its military support to Baghdad with political pressure on Maliki to govern in a more inclusive manner.

"It is good to strengthen the Iraqi Army - but the professional army, not the sectarian army. If you strengthen the sectarian army, you are making more hazards for the country," he said. "So what the Americans should do is first correct the political process in Iraq, to ensure equity in the country, justice in the country, and let people feel that they are first-class citizens."

Wathiq Khuzaie /Getty Images