Fethullah Gulen said on Thursday that the Turkish government may have been behind the assassination of Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov earlier this week and that the Turks could “facilitate” other murders and blame them on Gulenists, the followers of the U.S.-based cleric.
Gulen, who is considered a terrorist by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, raised that possibility in a video statement released on Thursday.
“The most dangerous possibility, in my humble opinion, as I alluded before, is that it appears that [the Turkish government] will facilitate other assassinations and will attempt to blame them on Hizmet movement,” Gulen said in the video, which was released by the Alliance for Shared Values, a non-profit that serves as the exiled imam’s PR shop.
Gulen, who lives in self-exile in a compound on Pennsylvania, sits as the figurehead of the Hizmet movement, a network of millions of followers spread across the world. Gulenists, as the Gulen faithful are called, hold prominent roles in Turkey’s military, judiciary and police forces. The movement also operates hundreds of charter schools around the globe, including more than 100 in the U.S.
Mevlut Mert Altintas, Karlov’s assassin, has been accused of being a Gulenist. The 22-year-old Ankara police officer was standing guard directly behind Karlov at an event in the capitol city on Monday when he pulled out a gun and fired multiple rounds into the diplomat’s back.
As Karlov lay dying, Altintas shouted the Muslim slogan “Allahu Akbar” and began ranting about Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.
Though Altintas was initially pegged as a supporter of the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra group, Erdogan, others in the Turkish government, and pro-government media outlets have publicly alleged that the gunman was a follower of the 77-year-old Gulen.
Their evidence appears to be based on the fact that many Turkish police officers are Gulenists. There have also been unsubstantiated reports that Altintas had pro-Gulen books in his home and that he attended a Gulenist school in Turkey.
Whether Altintas was a follower of the Hizmet movement could have repercussions for U.S. foreign policy and the Donald Trump presidency.
Erdogan has increasingly pressured the U.S. government to extradite Gulen back to Turkey to face terrorism charges there. He believes that the religious leader was behind widespread corruption investigations carried out in Dec. 2013 against pro-Erdogan officials. Erdogan has also accused Gulen of masterminding a failed coup against the government on July 15.
The Obama administration has considered Turkey’s evidence but has shown no indication that it will hand Gulen over. But Trump’s position on the matter is much less clear.
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security advisor, wrote last month that the U.S. government should return Gulen in order to appease Turkey, a NATO ally. And one of Trump’s first phone calls after the Nov. 8 election was with Erdogan. The Republican reportedly praised one of his Turkish business partners during the phone conversation.
During his remarks on Thursday, Gulen repeated his previous statement condemning Karlov’s assassination.
He also suggested that Karlov was supportive of the Hizmet movement.
“This person had sympathy for Hizmet activity in Russia,” Gulen claimed. “I heard from my friends that he attended their activities in Russia and talked favorably.”
Gulen did not entirely embrace the theory that Erdogan’s regime is behind Karlov’s murder. He referred to Altintas’ comments about the Syrian civil war and his jihadist rhetoric.
Gulen also raised the possibility that Erdogan’s crackdown on Turkish security forces could have allowed someone like Altintas to be in a position to carry out the assassination.
“The assassin was assigned as a security guard for [Erdogan] at different times,” Gulen noted, referring to news reports that Altintas stood guard for Erdogan on at least eight different occasions.
“To give him the assignment of serving as an armed guard, this is either a serious case of incompetence or it is done intentionally,” Gulen continued. “Let him do it, and we can blame the incident on somebody else. If it is a manifestation of incompetence — lack of foresight — then they might have thought let’s blame it on the Hizmet movement.”