ISTANBUL—Were Michael Flynn a Turkish citizen, it’s very likely he would be sitting in prison right now, awaiting trial for terror crimes.
In July of 2016, before he briefly became Donald Trump’s national security adviser, the former general was giving a speech in Cleveland just as soldiers were taking over the bridges and airports of Istanbul. “There’s an ongoing coup going on in Turkey right now—right now!” Flynn told his audience. The Turkish military, he continued, was a secular institution, whereas the country was heading “toward Islamism” under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His audience broke into applause; the event was hosted by a local branch of ACT for America, a national security group with strong Islamophobic tendencies. “Yeah,” Flynn said, “that is worth applauding.”
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By morning, however, the coup had failed, and the Turkish government was busy detaining anyone it believed had supported the plotters. Any Turkish citizen heard making such remarks, and on video, would undoubtedly have been arrested and jailed, as Erdogan’s government considers supporting the coup attempt an act of terrorism. Of the tens of thousands of people detained over the past year, many had said not a word about the coup; just having a certain app, a certain one-dollar bill, even a daughter born in a certain hospital counts as incriminating evidence in Turkey’s highly politicized courts.
Any foreign official would, at the very least, have been roundly condemned and vilified in the Turkish pro-government press. But for Flynn, Turkey appeared happy to make an exception. For, by the time the video surfaced last November, Flynn had performed a heel turn, lobbying in favor of Erdogan’s government and denouncing the man Ankara holds responsible for the failed putsch: Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Flynn also met in September and December last year with senior Turkish officials—including energy minister Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law—to discuss kidnapping Gülen and delivering him to Turkey, an allegation now being investigated as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. On Thursday, it emerged that Flynn’s lawyer had stopped sharing information with Trump’s legal team, a sign he may be cooperating with the investigation—with potentially portentous results for the president.
Kidnapping allegations aside, Flynn was, at least, one of very few senior Western officials who publicly agreed with Ankara’s view that Gülen was a threat —even though his worldview is firmly at odds with that of the Turkish government. Erdogan has his roots in political Islamism, an ideology Flynn considers a dire threat. During his brief tenure as national security adviser, he pushed for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood — whose exiled leadership has found a safe haven in Turkey — to be designated a terrorist group. He has described Islam as a “cancer,” and at one point last year tweeted: “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.”
Turkey is well aware of Flynn’s anti-Muslim sentiments: “He’s an Islamophobe,” says Hilal Kaplan, a prominent columnist for Sabah, a newspaper with close ties to the Turkish government. But to Ankara, getting at Gülen trumps all else. In Turkey, no day goes by without mention of the cleric: Erdogan, who has pledged to bring him home to face justice, denounces him in daily speeches. The country is deeply divided on many issues, but Gülen is despised by both supporters and opponents of the government; many Turks believe he and his followers present an ongoing threat to their security, fearful that they might plan another coup.
Flynn’s Islamophobic rhetoric may not have won him any friends in Ankara, but he seemed a useful ally in pushing the new administration to extradite Turkey’s public enemy No. 1. “I don’t appreciate his thoughts on the Middle East and Islam,” Kaplan said of Flynn. “I don’t think he’s on the same page with Turkey on everything. But on the Gülen issue, he made a positive contribution.”
Flynn’s worldview would not have prevented the Turkish government from trying to work with him, believes Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, the Ankara office director of the German Marshall Fund think tank: “From what I understand, the Turkish government is said to have made a business deal,” he said, referring to the alleged kidnapping plot. For that, he added, “they didn’t need to like him.”
Now, as he contemplates the smoking ruins of a once-promising career, the retired lieutenant general faces a potential indictment for failing to come clean on his dealings with Turkey—a predicament that is all the more tragic because Turks couldn’t care less about Michael Flynn.
From her office in Sabah’s Istanbul newsroom, Kaplan has an unobstructed view of the first of three bridges spanning the Bosphorus, the strait dividing Europe and Asia. Once called simply Bosphorus Bridge, it was renamed as 15 July Martyrs’ Bridge last year, in honor of those who died resisting the putschists.
The coup attempt caught Turks by surprise. The military had unseated several governments in the second half of the 20th century, but Erdogan had long curbed the generals’ ability to interfere. And Turks no longer tolerated military rule: As the news broke on the night of July 15 last year, thousands of citizens took to the street, facing down guns and tanks to demonstrate against the takeover. The Bosphorus Bridge saw some of the worst violence.
“I was on the bridge on the night of the coup,” Kaplan said. “Bullets were flying all around us. At some point, I thought my husband was dead. I left home, saying goodbye to my child. That’s just an example of what we went through that night.”
By the time the soldiers on the bridge surrendered at sunrise, more than 250 people had died across the country. Parliament and other government buildings in Ankara had been bombed by rebel jets. Turks often complain that foreigners do not understand the magnitude of the trauma caused by the event; many, including Kaplan, liken the coup’s emotional impact to the 9/11 attacks, a comparison also made by the U.S. consul in Istanbul.
Many Turks feel their Western allies showed no solidarity with them in the aftermath of the coup. Messages of condolence and support often came tinged with criticism as Erdogan embarked on a sweeping purge in the days after the attempted takeover, arresting thousands of judges, civil servants and ordinary citizens accused of belonging to Gülen’s secretive movement, an opaque network running schools and businesses across the globe, including in the United States. The purge soon widened to include opponents of all stripes, including Kurdish parliamentarians and critical journalists. One year on, 55,000 people sit behind bars.
Ankara was enraged at Western emphasis on rule of law in the failed coup’s immediate aftermath. “Turkey expected support,” said Talha Köse, a professor at Istanbul’s Ibn Haldun University and researcher at SETA, a think tank with close ties to the Turkish government. “After the coup, Russia was the first country to express support. Unfortunately American involvement was very late and very weak.” Russian President Vladimir Putin, Erdoğan noted in a speech last year, did not ask him about the number of people detained when he called.
The feeling of a lack of solidarity was compounded by Western skepticism over Turkey’s claim that Gülen, an elderly cleric who had been living in self-imposed exile since the 1990s, had orchestrated the coup. Commenting on Ankara’s extradition request, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on Turkey to provide “legitimate evidence.” European intelligence services have expressed doubt that the cleric’s followers, known as Gülenists, were solely responsible for the coup attempt, instead believing that a mix of Gülenists and disenchanted officers were to blame.
There are plenty of signs that Gülenists did indeed play a role in the coup attempt—several Gülenist civilians were detained at an airbase taken over by mutinous officers, for instance—but Turkey has so far not provided solid evidence implicating the cleric himself. Gülen, meanwhile, has denied any involvement in the coup. The cleric and his movement present themselves as advocates for moderate Islam and interfaith dialogue.
But to most Turks, both supporters and opponents of the government, Gülen was the obvious culprit. Many here compare his movement to a sect or a mafia, given the degree of secrecy surrounding it. Gülenists used to wield considerable influence in Turkey, with followers in all branches of the state; they stand accused of infiltrating government institutions over decades. Gülenist jurists are widely considered—both by Turks across the political spectrum and by independent analysts—to have staged sham trials against government opponents and critics of the exiled cleric and his movement.
Gülen was once a key ally of the president; after Erdogan came to power, the cleric’s followers in state institutions proved helpful in dismantling the influence of the old secular elite. Years prior to the coup attempt, however, his movement became an enemy of the government. The breaking point came in 2013, when Gülenists are thought to have leaked the tapes that sparked a graft scandal embroiling Erdogan’s inner circle.
Kaplan estimates that “90 percent of Turkish people think this coup is related to Fethullah Gülen and his people.” What especially angers Turks, she said, is that “we saw no sympathy from the U.S. regarding this issue.” There are no surveys to back up her estimate, but in Turkey, few challenge the government’s assertion that Gülen masterminded the coup. Opposition groups despised the movement long before the 2013 corruption scandal, given its persecutions of critics. Even Kurdish nationalists—often at odds with Turkish public opinion—loathe the Gülenists, blaming them for the arrest of hundreds of Kurdish activists.
Reports of the movement’s size vary—estimates range from hundreds of thousands to several million members—but these days, it doesn’t take much to be labelled a Gülenist in Turkey. A child born in a hospital linked to the movement, or a mortgage at a Gülen-linked bank is enough cause for arrest. Owning a one-dollar bill with certain serial numbers and downloading a niche messaging app allegedly used by the movement are believed to denote membership. The scale of the purge is vast: 8 percent of all citizens have been investigated. The government says these measures are necessary to dismantle the threat of another coup.
“Turkey is concerned that the Gülen organisation is still very strong,” said Köse. “They tried to infiltrate the state … it’s such a complex network, it’s in all segments of society. That’s very difficult for Americans and other Westerners to understand.”
When Trump won the elections, Turkey’s government was relieved. During the campaign, Erdogan had reacted to Trump’s anti-Muslim comments with anger, at one point demanding that his name be taken off the Trump Towers in Istanbul. But after Trump declared victory, pro-government newspapers struck an optimistic tone. Turkey’s government cheered for Trump largely because they were concerned about the alternative: Hillary Clinton would represent a continuation of the previous administration, and Ankara had grown disenchanted with Barack Obama, particularly due to his support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia in Syria.
The U.S. trained and equipped the YPG, which Washington considers its most reliable ally in the fight against the Islamic State. Turkey, however, sees the group as a threat: The YPG is the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a violent insurgency against the Turkish state for decades. Clinton was sure to continue U.S. support for the YPG; Trump apparently has just agreed to end it. Moreover, Turkey believed she had ties to the Gulenists as the movement’s members had donated to campaign groups linked to the Democratic nominee. According to USA Today, for instance, a key coup suspect donated $5,000 to the Ready for Hillary PAC in 2014.
Flynn’s comments about Gülen likely added to Turkey’s optimistic view of Trump; here was a soon-to-be senior U.S. government official who seemed to understand the serious threat the cleric presented to Turkey. An editorial in Sabah, which tends to reflect the opinions of the Turkish government, declared that Trump would have won if the U.S. elections were held in Turkey. “Trump and his advisers expressed opinions, particularly about Gülen and the Middle East, which were much closer to Turkey’s theses” than the Clinton campaign’s, the editorial continued, proceeding to quote Flynn extensively.
Shortly after the coup attempt, a Turkish businessman, Ekim Alptekin, approached Flynn’s consulting firm to improve Ankara’s image in the U.S. Flynn accepted the $530,000 lobbying contract. In September, the former general met Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoğlu and Erdogan’s son Albayrak, according to ex-CIA director James Woolsey, who also attended. At this meeting, Flynn reportedly discussed removing Gulen from the United States, Woolsey told the Wall Street Journal. At the second meeting, Flynn and his son, Micheal Flynn Jr., were allegedly offered up to $15 million in exchange for bringing the cleric to Turkey, the Journal reported. Both Flynn’s lawyer and the Turkish embassy in Washington have denied the reports. (Turkish government officials contacted for this article did not respond to requests for comment.)
On Election Day, Flynn then published an op-ed in the Hill, a small, Congress-focused newspaper, lauding Turkey as a “source of stability” in the Middle East and painting Gülen as a “shady mullah” in charge of a terror network. “From Turkey’s point of view, Washington is harboring Turkey’s Osama bin Laden,” Flynn wrote. The pro-government media enthusiastically quoted from his article. “Gülenists gripped with fear after Trump chief adviser’s words,” exulted the pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak.
Soon afterward, Trump appointed Flynn as his national security adviser. “A big blow from Trump to the Gülenists!” was Sabah’s reaction to the news. By then, Flynn’s contract with Alptekin had ended, but he may have still had Turkey’s interests on his mind: In January, he reportedly told Obama’s outgoing national security adviser, Susan Rice, to hold off making a decision about arming the YPG to take over Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital.
Ahead of the inauguration, Flynn met with Cavusoglu yet again; the Turkish foreign minister even tweeted about the meeting. Despite the 2016 video that showed him cheering on the coup attempt and his Islamophobic rhetoric, Ankara evidently considered the former general a potential ally, says Ilhan Tanir, a Turkish journalist based in Washington and an editor for Ahval, a news website critical of the Turkish government.
“I think they saw something in Flynn,” Tanir said. “They were hopeful, so they overlooked it all.”
Yet Turkey’s enchantment with Trump soon dissipated when it became clear that the new president would neither put a stop to U.S. cooperation with the YPG, nor call for Gülen’s extradition.
“Reality has struck: Trump is unable to deliver on Turkey’s demands, including Erdogan’s demand regarding the extradition of Fethullah Gülen,” said Kemal Kirisci, director of the Turkey Project at the Brookings Institute in Washington. Gülen and the YPG were not the only blows to Turkish-U.S. ties this year: The trial against Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish businessman accused of helping Iran evade sanctions, begins later this month in New York.
Rumors that Zarrab might plead guilty and cooperate with the prosecution have unnerved the Turkish government; prosecutors reportedly have evidence that suggests Erdogan or his family may have known about or even supported Zarrab’s actions. According to NBC, Mueller’s investigation is also examining whether Flynn discussed ways to free Zarrab with Turkish officials last December.
And in October, the United States suspended the processing of non-immigrant visas in Turkey following the arrest of a Turkish citizen employed by the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, who had been accused of links to Gülen followers. Turkey, in turn, also suspended visa processing in the United States and stopped issuing visas on entry for U.S. citizens.
Among Turks, anti-Americanism has surged since the attempted coup, propelled by what many perceive as U.S. protection of Gülen. Erdogan has upped his anti-Western rhetoric and signaled deeper cooperation with Moscow; Turkey, a NATO member country, recently signed a deal to buy Russian air defense missiles. With America refusing to extradite Gülen and arming the Kurds, Turkey feels as if Washington does not take its national security concerns seriously. “Zarrab, Gülen, the YPG—these all come back to Turkey’s national security,” Kaplan said. The United States, she suggested, could at least detain Gülen as a signal of goodwill to Ankara.
Flynn’s op-ed, meanwhile, still gets the occasional citation in Turkey’s pro-government press. His name regularly crops up whenever a development in the Mueller probe hits the news wires; one pro-government pundit suspected the Gülenists behind the investigation into Flynn, writing that the “CIA-Pentagon and media powers behind the Gülenists” were targeting Flynn for the Hill op-ed. Yet despite his alleged deal with Ankara, Flynn’s legal predicaments do not get many column inches—which likely reflects the government’s lack of interest.
“It was not a long-term relationship. There’s no deeper investment in Flynn,” said Köse, the academic. Mueller’s investigation into the former general’s activities, he added, “is not a huge issue” for the Turkish government.