By Christopher Brennan, New York Daily News- The fight against ISIS could receive a major boost by plucking a 76-year-old man from his home in the Poconos. At least that’s the case that the Turkish government and its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will likely make to the Trump administration as they visit this week. The recent U.S. decision to arm Syrian Kurds, which Erdogan says supports separatist terrorists in his country, has added to tensions between Washington and Ankara, a NATO ally. Part of Turkey’s mission to the U.S. is to pressure the Trump administration into relieving that tension by acceding to one of its top demands, extraditing controversial exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Gulen has become a go-to bogeyman in Turkey as it has become more repressive, with the government blaming him for orchestrating a failed coup last summer.
The cleric condemned the coup and denies planning it, though Erdogan has purged thousands of suspected Gulen followers from positions such as judgeships since July.
He has repeatedly called for Gulen himself — who lives in a compound in rural Saylorsburg, Pa. — to be extradited back to his home country to face trial.
Former President Barack Obama had cool relations with his Turkish counterpart, though it remains unclear how Trump, who has praised strongmen including Egypt's Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte, will react to the request.
“I expect that President Trump will offer Erdogan some carrots,” said Nick Heras, a fellow and Middle East analyst at the Center for a New American Security, adding that the main goal is Turkey taking a softer stance toward Kurds fighting ISIS.
Heras said one of the biggest incentives will be a sphere of Turkish influence in a post-Islamic State Syria, though Turkish state media has also focused on Gulen in the lead-up to Tuesday’s meeting.
“It does stick in the craw of Turkey that Gulen is residing in peace and prosperity so close to the capital of a NATO ally,” the analyst added.
Gulen has lived at his Pennsylvania compound since 1999, leaving his home country when it was ruled by military-backed secularists.
His Hizmet movement to “integrate Muslim faith with modern life” and Erdogan, who leads a moderate Islamist party, were on the same side against that regime, but their relationship soured as the Turkish leader has cemented his hold on power.
Last month the 63-year-old strongman narrowly won a referendum to transfer large powers to the presidency, something he has long desired as he looks to reshape Turkish politics.
The European Union called for an investigation of “irregularities” in the election, though Trump was the first Western leader to congratulate Erdogan on his win.
Y. Alp Aslandogan, the director of Gulen’s Alliance for Shared Values, believes the President will offer his Turkish counterpart another “pat on the back” and a photo-op on Tuesday, though cautioned him against granting the wish for extradition.
“It is not worth the risk of additional scandal,” Aslandogan told the News, saying that in addition to Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies, he has also supported radical Islamists in the tangled web of Syrian groups opposed to Bashar Assad.
“They are against ISIS, they are against terrorism. If anything this movement is an asset for the West and the world,” he said of Gulen sympathizers.
The Turkish government labels those supporters as a terrorist organization on par with ISIS.
Erdogan's administration has also hired an attorney to investigate Gulen, and Erdogan takes the view that beyond the coup attempt, Gulen is running a large-scale criminal organization.
“He presents himself as Grandpa Islam because he knows it sells,” Robert Amsterdam told the News, saying that Gulen’s views published in Turkish are much more traditionalist.
Gulen’s image as a power broker in his home country is bolstered by his relative reclusiveness in the Poconos and the fact that he and the Alliance for Shared Values support a global network of hospitals and schools, including more than 100 charter schools in the U.S.
Amsterdam says that the schools push Gulen’s agenda have “systematically defrauded the U.S. government” through use of taxpayer funds and having employees brought over from Turkey send part of their wages to the preacher’s causes. Aslandogan denies both charges, saying that investigations have not found any fraud and that “there is zero tolerance for religious teaching in public school.”
He added that the idea of teaching anything Islamic in a place like Texas, the location of many schools, is laughable. The Gulen supporter declined to comment on what would happen if the imam is extradited, saying he believes it is unlikely, given the decision would ultimately be legal, rather than political.
Turkey formally requested the extradition in September, saying Gulen had planned the coup.
Those requests are normally handled by the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs, which would then forward it to a federal court near Gulen if the request is found compliant with the extradition treaty between the U.S. and Turkey.
“We continue to work with the government of Turkey on this matter. We are reviewing and carefully considering all materials as they are provided, and will make any decisions about extradition on the basis of the facts and relevant U.S. law,” Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said Monday.
Even if the Trump administration decides to go forward with the paperwork needed for a possible Gulen extradition case, there would be no certainty of the cleric getting put on a plane anytime soon.
Gulen’s team said he could not receive a fair trial in Turkey, where prosecutors have said he should serve more than 3,500 life sentences and Erdogan has recently spoken about bringing back the death penalty.
Attorney and international extradition expert Douglas McNabb told the News that a potential legal battle would likely focus on a part of the U.S.-Turkey treaty that allows exceptions to extradition requests when offenses are of a “political character.”
Charging Gulen with actions related to the coup would seem to fit in that political exception, and McNabb says that Turkey is more likely to succeed by charging him with a “regular” crime.
Observers such as Heras are also unsure if Trump will take the political risk of both cozying up to a strongman and trying to sell a deal where the U.S. extradites a longtime resident, especially when it could all be knocked down by a court.
Heras said the fate of an old man in Pennsylvania is “not a front burner issue with most Americans,” but that Gulen’s extradition could easily become an international issue if Trump breaks with the precedent from previous administrations that have protected the imam.
Aslandogan added that he believes the more likely person being transferred between the U.S. and Turkey after Tuesday’s meeting would be Andrew Brunson, a North Carolina native and Christian pastor being held in a Turkish prison on terrorism charges.