Magazine | January 28, 2019, Issue

Whisked Away

Enes Kanter, NBA player and Erdogan target (Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
The Turkish government and its program of kidnappings

Ibrahim Kalin was to be a keynote speaker at the MAS-ICNA convention. This bothered a lot of people, especially opponents of the Turkish government living in the United States. Their agitation is well understandable.

“MAS-ICNA” stands for “Muslim American Society” and “Islamic Circle of North America.” Jointly, these organizations hold an annual convention, taking place in Chicago at the end of the year. Ibrahim Kalin is a famous figure, or an infamous one, depending on whom you talk to: A former academic in the United States, he is the chief adviser to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey.

Incidentally, Erdogan has a keen interest in American Muslim organizations. He sees himself as a leader of the Islamic world at large. In 2016, one of his daughters, Sumeyye, was a star at the MAS-ICNA convention.

Back to Kalin. Last September, he made remarks that raised eyebrows, to put it mildly. Speaking in Ankara, he said, “Relevant units and institutions will continue their operations in countries where FETO operates, whether in the U.S. or another country. The Turkish Republic will not let them rest. They will feel Turkey breathing down their neck.”

“FETO”? More on that in a moment. As it happened, Kalin could not appear at the MAS-ICNA convention, as he traveled to Moscow with a Turkish delegation to discuss cooperation between Turkey and Russia in the Syrian war. This was in the wake of President Trump’s announcement of a U.S. withdrawal from that country. To the convention, Turkey’s consul general in Chicago read out a message from Erdogan himself.

The Turkish government has established an agency with an extraordinarily blunt name: “Office for Human Abductions and Executions.” It is an arm of the Turkish intelligence organization, an organization known by the initials “MIT.” The country’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, has given out some numbers: Turkey has retrieved 104 people from 21 different countries (by whatever means). And the government has its sights on many, many more.

Dictatorships aren’t shy about harassing, capturing, or killing their critics in exile. They are rarely fussy about what they do on foreign soil. Putin’s Russia, as we have seen, is very unshy and unfussy. So are China, Cuba, and, increasingly, Turkey. Ibrahim Kalin said that the U.S. is not exempt from Turkey’s “operations.” This should alert any U.S. official who, for some reason, is not already alert.

Above all other men, the Erdogan regime hates Fethullah Gulen. He is the Turkish Muslim leader, now 77 years old, who has lived in the United States since 1999. His followers call their movement “Hizmet,” meaning “Service.” They have many schools all over the world. They say that their movement is devoted to education, equality, and democracy. Their sympathizers and well-wishers agree. Others do not, of course. The Gulen movement has been debated for decades now.

Erdogan took power 16 years ago, in 2003. For a time, the Gulenists were in alliance — at least a tactical alliance — with him and his Justice and Develop­ment Party (AKP). But there came a decisive break in 2013, when Erdogan accused the Gulenists of plotting against him. Gulenists say they were simply trying to curb the corruption of the AKP-ers. In any case, Erdogan cracked down on the Gulen movement, eventually declaring it a terrorist organization. He and the AKP named it “FETO” — an acronym for “Fethullah Terrorist Organization.” Hence, Ibrahim Kalin’s use of that term.

To the AKP, every opponent or critic of the government is a “Gulenist.” You could be a secular leftist journalist, with no use for the Gulen movement. Still, you are a “Gulenist.” You are also a “terrorist.” Any opponent or critic is a “terrorist.” The government has imprisoned human-rights activists as “terrorists.” Among them is the director of the Turkish branch of Amnesty International, Idil Eser. Enes Kanter, too, has been labeled a “terrorist.” He is a center on the New York Knicks, of the National Basketball Association. (More on him in due course.)

In July 2016 came a coup attempt in Turkey. By whom? This is a murky subject. Erdogan immediately said, “Gulen.” Others pointed to a combination of forces, in the broad anti-Erdogan sphere. Still others said that Erdogan himself had a hand in the events. When the smoke cleared, Erdogan declared the coup attempt “a gift from God,” making possible “a new Turkey.”

It did, in a way. Erdogan executed a sweeping, horrific crackdown, arresting hundreds of thousands of people — judges, professors, journalists, everybody — and cementing a personal dictatorship, so common in the world. Today, Turkey is the world’s leading jailer of journalists. The prisons bulge with all sorts of people who may have an independent thought — a thought different from Erdogan’s or the AKP’s.

Last year, a joke made the rounds. A prisoner visits the prison library, requesting a certain book. The librarian says, “We don’t have the book. But we do have the author.”

Erdogan made Fethullah Gulen — who flatly denied any involvement in the coup attempt — a demon figure. He is Turkey’s Emmanuel Goldstein (the bogeyman in 1984). Propaganda against Gulen and the Gulen movement is nonstop. And the government has cast its net worldwide, looking to bring in any and all critics, under the rubric “Gulenist.”

“We will return to the country one by one those Gulenists who have fled and now think they’re safe,” Erdogan said. “We will continue the fight against the Gulenists until we have completely eradicated them.”

The government induces some countries to extradite Erdogan’s critics. Ankara may say, for example, “An Airbus or two for this Gulenist or two.” Where extradition is impossible or difficult, abduction will do.

It happened in Kosovo, dramatically. Six people — almost all of them teachers — were nabbed and immediately flown to Turkey. A CCTV camera caught one of the kidnappings. Two agents posed as cops, yanking Yusuf Karabina from his car. His wife, Yasemin, knowing what was happening, screamed for help. To no avail. Before long, her husband and the rest were on the plane to Turkey. They were tortured along the way, of course.

Said Erdogan, “Wherever they may go, we will wrap them up and bring them here, God willing. And here they will be held to account.” Reports of torture, from those who live to tell the tale, almost never vary, from dictatorship to dictatorship, year after year: beatings, sleep deprivation, isolation, electrodes on genitals, forced confessions, etc.

Turkish intelligence has operated fairly easily in countries such as Kosovo, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Gabon, and Sudan. It is harder in countries with a sturdier rule of law. Two Turkish agents — “diplomats” — conspired to kid­nap a Turkish-Swiss businessman. They did not pull it off. Last summer, the Swiss government issued warrants for their arrest.

Enes Kanter, the basketball player, was targeted in Indonesia, while on a tour for his charitable foundation. Tipped off at 2:30 in the morning, he caught the next plane out, which was to Singapore. From there, he went to Romania — where he discovered that the Turkish government had canceled his passport. Helped by the U.S. State Department, the NBA, and other institutions, he made it back to America. Otherwise, he says, it might have ended very badly for him.

Kanter is a Gulenist — a genuine one — and an outspoken critic of the Erdogan regime. His fame as an athlete has protected him, to a degree. He can talk to journalists openly (as he has to me) and is happy to be quoted. Other Turks abroad, however, are scared to death to be identified. They have reason to be. They know it could be death — murder — to their families back home.

The family of Enes Kanter has paid a price. Enes’s father, a university professor, lost his job. He has also been put on trial. (What will happen is not yet clear.) Enes’s dentist has been imprisoned, and so has the dentist’s wife. The list goes on.

On January 17, the Knicks will play the Washington Wizards in London. (This gives new meaning to “away game.”) Kanter has decided not to go with his team, fearing what might happen. “They’ve got a lot of spies there,” he told the press, referring to the Turkish government. “I could get killed very easily.”

It is the Erdogan government’s highest hope, of course, to get the United States to extradite Fethullah Gulen himself back to Turkey. Michael Flynn, while advising Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign, worked with the Turkish government to this end. (He later became Trump’s first national-security adviser. And, belatedly, he registered as a foreign agent.)

On September 19, 2016, Flynn met with a number of Turkish officials, including Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law. Also attending was a former CIA director, R. James Woolsey. Evidently, the group discussed something beyond Gulen’s extradition — namely, “a covert step in the dead of night to whisk this guy away.” Those were Woolsey’s words to the Wall Street Journal. (Woolsey wanted no part of such activity.)

Gulen has not been whisked away. But Erdogan is pressing hard for his extradition. On the second-to-last day of 2018, his justice minister, Abdulhamit Gul, said, “God willing, the U.S. will comply with our demand in 2019.”

Eric Edelman, who was a U.S. ambassador to Turkey in the 2000s, says that the Erdogan regime has shown “a clear pattern of exporting authoritarian lawlessness.” Americans got a glimpse of this — just a glimpse — when Erdogan visited Washington, D.C., in May 2017. There were protesters, and Erdogan’s presidential guard duly beat the hell out of them. Senator John McCain said, “This is the United States of America. We do not do this here. There is no excuse for this kind of thuggish behavior.”

If Turkish authorities behave this way in the American capital in broad daylight, imagine what they do at home, or in relative backwaters such as Kosovo.

Edelman also speaks of an “Auth­oritarian International” (echoing the old “Comintern,” or “Communist Inter­national”). Recep Tayyip Erdogan is prominent in this league. Not many world leaders attended his most recent inauguration, in July 2018, but the attendees included Russia’s Medvedev (the prime minister), Hungary’s Orbán (the only EU leader present), and Venezuela’s Maduro. Maduro hailed Erdogan as a “leader of the new multipolar world.”

He is. Will others stand up to him, and that league? That is a major question of our time.

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