Former Trump adviser implicated in Turkish campaign to discredit Gulen

In early November 2016 Flynn wrote column blaming Gulen for the attempted coup in Turkey and urged the US government to deny him refuge in the United States.

Turkish government financed, oversaw illegal public-relations campaign.

Consulting firm was run by former Trump adviser Michael Flynn.

WASHINGTON D.C. - US prosecutors say the Turkish government financed and oversaw an illegal public-relations campaign aimed at discrediting Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen so that the United States would extradite him to Turkey.

The accusation is described in an indictment that charges two men with carrying out a covert campaign to convince US politicians and citizens that Gulen is a “radical” cleric comparable to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The Turkish government has sought Gulen’s extradition since early 2016 and charges that he orchestrated the failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016. Gulen denies the charges.

Turkey launched a $600,000 campaign to “discredit and delegitimise” Gulen in July 2016, four days after the US Justice Department rejected the Turkish government’s request to extradite him, according to an indictment released December 17. The Justice Department said the extradition request fell short of legal standards required by the US-Turkey extradition treaty. Gulen has lived since the late 1990s in a rural area of Pennsylvania about 145km west of New York City.

The indictment describes a series of e-mails and meetings from late July 2016 to early November 2016 in which unnamed Turkish government officials developed a public-relations campaign with the two men facing charges aimed at securing Gulen’s extradition. The plan did not succeed, although Turkish Foreign Minister Melvut Cavusoglu said recently that the administration of US President Donald Trump is considering extradition.

The two men facing US criminal charges are:

— Kamil Ekim Alptekin, 41, an Istanbul-based businessman with “close ties to the highest levels of the Government of Turkey” who orchestrated the campaign on behalf of the Turkish government and disbursed the $600,000 from Turkey to conceal the government’s involvement.

— Bijan Rafiekian, 66, who lived outside of Washington and was vice-chairman of a political-consulting firm that ran the influence campaign and received the $600,000.

The campaign has taken on huge significance in the United States because Rafiekian’s consulting firm was run by Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Flynn was a top adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign in July 2016 when the anti-Gulen campaign began. He is a former Army lieutenant general who was head of the Defence Intelligence Agency until being ousted in 2014.

The anti-Gulen campaign culminated in early November 2016 when Flynn wrote a column blaming Gulen for the attempted coup in Turkey and urged the US government to deny him refuge in the United States. The column was published in a Washington newspaper on Election Day in 2016.

Flynn never disclosed that the Turkish government paid him to write the column. His secrecy violated US law, and Flynn has admitted lying about his consulting firm’s ties to Turkey.

Flynn has become embroiled in the US Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign. He was forced to resign as Trump’s national security adviser in February 2017, after just 24 days on the job, when it was revealed that he lied when he denied having spoken to a Russian official in the weeks before Trump took office.

Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to prosecutors and is cooperating with the investigation into Russian interference. His sentencing, scheduled for December 18, was postponed.

Rafiekian pleaded not guilty in a court outside Washington on December 18 and is scheduled to face trial starting February 11. He faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted. Alptekin has not appeared in US court, and prosecutors told a judge that they do not expect he will come to the United States.

Both men are charged with making false statements to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and with acting as illegal agents of the Turkish government. The latter charge accuses the men of failing to register with the Justice Department as “agents” of a foreign government – Turkey — seeking to influence the US government on Turkey’s behalf.

The indictment does not charge any Turkish government officials or allege that Turkey did anything illegal. A spokeswoman for Alptekin told the Washington Post that “the government of Turkey did not participate in this project” and that Alptekin’s company “was the only entity directing the work and paying for the work.”

Gulen, the cleric, has denied Turkey’s charges that he orchestrated the 2016 coup attempt and an earlier attempt in December 2014. The indictment calls him “an imam, writer and political figure who heads an organisation that runs a network of schools and charities in Turkey and other countries.”

Thomas Frank is a correspondent in Washington.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.