On 17 December, the Justice Department’s office of public affairs released a statement on two recent espionage indictments. According to the statement, the charges were leveled against two Turkish nationals for “acting in the United States as illegal agents of the government of Turkey.” The pair were identified as Bijan Rafiekian, (aka Bijan Kian), 66, of San Juan Capistrano, California, and Kamil Ekim Alptekin, 41, of Istanbul.
According to allegations in the indictments, the two men were involved in an elaborate conspiracy to covertly influence U.S. politicians and public opinion against a particular “Turkish citizen living in the United States,” one whose “extradition had been requested by the Government of Turkey.” The plan was to set up a shadow company (referred to in official reports only as “Company A”) to execute a propaganda campaign targeting the aforementioned “Turkish citizen.” The goal of the campaign was to delegitimize the Turkish citizen in the eyes of the American public and United States politicians in order to obtain his extradition. According to the DoJ, not only did Turkish cabinet-level officials approve the budget for the project, but Alptekin provided the Turkish officials updates on the work, and relayed their directions on the op to Rafiekian. Of course, as part of the plan, the conspirators sought to conceal that the government of Turkey was directing the campaign.
In an interesting twist to this ongoing story, both men charged are former business associates of ex-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. The two men worked in Flynn’s business organization, the Flynn Intel Group. Rafiekian was reportedly the vice-chairman of the enterprise, in which capacity he supervised (yep, you guessed it) much of the group’s foreign political work related to Turkey. Whether or not the Flynn connection will be relevant to the case is yet to be seen.
Reading Between the Lines
The DoJ press release, while going into many details of the alleged conspiracy, was also a bit obscure. The “Turkish citizen” around whom the entire conspiracy evolved is never named. However, in context the identity is clear. The target of the Rafiekian/Ekim-run scheme is none other than Turkish Sufi preacher in exile Fethullah Gülen. Gülen was once a close confidant of, and in political alliance with, current Turkish ruler Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The Turkish government has sought the extradition of Gülen from the U.S. for over two years now, accusing the imam of being behind the failed 2016 coup that took place in the country.
Enemy Number One
It is important to understand Gülen’s place in current Turkish politics—and consequently the significance he has in the tension-riddled relationship between Ankara and Washington.
Gülen, 77, has been at the center of Turkish affairs for decades. His transnational movement, referred to by insiders as Hizmet, or “Service,” preaches tolerance and moderate interpretations of Islam with a strong influence from Sufi mysticism. Founded nearly sixty years ago, the movement went national in Turkey during the 1980s. Today the group has as many as four million followers worldwide.
Despite the group’s “Ghandi-like” character, Gülen has long espoused strong populist political views. These sentiments have almost always been expressed by the imam in the context of opposing government corruption. It was only a matter of time before Gülen would clash with authorities. The definitive blow to Gülen’s standing with the ruling class came five years ago during the infamous 2013 corruption scandal. During that year, a government-wide investigation was launched to uncover corruption of various officials. The investigation lead to the resignation of several powerful ministers. Erdogan accused Gülen of ordering his followers holding senior positions in the police and judiciary to launch those investigations.
Having already been branded by the government as a master of subversion, Gülen was also the perfect scapegoat for the disastrous 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Tens of thousands of alleged Gülen supporters were arrested and nearly all of his institutions in Turkey shut down. His organization continues to be persecuted in Turkey today.
As some commentators have aptly put it, Gülen is to Erdoğan what Trotsky was to Stalin. Like Leon Trotsky, the founder of the Soviet Red Army who was hounded and chased out of the USSR by Joseph Stalin, Gülen has become an all-encompassing explanation for any existential threat. And just as Trotsky gave Stalin the excuse to brutally purge every element of the Soviet apparatus, Gülen did the same for Erdoğan.
Thus in Erdoğan’s never-ending pursuit to consolidate his grip on power, apprehending Gülen has become a central focus. The recent DoJ report has revealed just how far Erdoğan is willing to go to achieve this goal.
Moving forward, the question is what affects the DoJ investigation-turned-federal-trial will do to Turkish-American relations. For one, the U.S. government will almost certainly be less likely to comply with extradition requests for Gülen. Earlier this week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu claimed that President Trump told President Erdoğan at their meeting during the last G20 summit in Buenos Aires that the United States “was working on extraditing Gulen” as well as “other people” of interest to Turkish authorities. Now, administration officials are contradicting that statement completely. “While meeting with President Erdoğan at the G20, the president did not commit to extradite Fethullah Gulen,” said one official, who spoke to media on condition of anonymity.
But beyond the Gülen issue, the real query is how the discovery of Turkish agents in America will influence cooperation between the two countries on the larger scale. Over the past two years, the major point of contention between Ankara and Washington has been Syria and all the issues that emanate from that conflict such as the Kurdish question. Now the United States’ involvement in Syria seems to be coming to a close. Many have speculated that contained in this move—among other objectives of course—is an attempt to appease Turkey. This would mean re-gaining cooperation from an important regional ally on more pressing issues such as the Iran problem—a subject on which Turkey has considerable influence. It could very well be that the administration will quietly ignore the recently uncovered Turkish subterfuge in order to insure reconciliation goes smoothly.