Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen at his home in Pennsylvania. Photo: DPA
Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen at his home in Pennsylvania. Photo: DPA

The US State Department has denied that it is considering deporting preacher Fethullah Gülen to reduce Turkish pressure on the Saudi government over the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan holds Gülen responsible for an attempted coup in Turkey in July 2016. News network NBC reported that the Trump administration had directed the Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation to reopen his file after Turkish authorities submitted another extradition request.

NBC’s report, quoting two senior American officials and two others briefed on the matter, said that career officials at the two agencies initially resisted the White House requests. “At first there were eye rolls, but once they realized it was a serious request, the career guys were furious,” it quoted an unnamed senior official as saying.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told AFP there was no connection between the extradition requests and the backlash in Turkey over continued American support for Saudi Arabia following the murder of Khashoggi in Istanbul on October 2.

She said the White House “has not been involved in any discussions related to the extradition of Fetullah Gülen”. Nauert added: “We have received multiple requests from the Turkish government … related to Mr Gülen. We continue to evaluate the material that the Turkish government presents requesting his extradition.”

The White House has been seeking avenues to placate a diplomatically resurgent Turkey since the murder of Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the Saudi regime and Washington Post columnist who was killed after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Gülen has lived in the US for two decades and apparently has permanent residency, so his extradition would be a sensitive issue

His death has put intense scrutiny on Washington’s close ties with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is believed to have sanctioned the murder, and it has given Turkey unexpected leverage.

Gülen has lived in the US for two decades and has permanent residency, so his extradition would be a sensitive issue. But Turkey has ratcheted up its pressure on Washington and Riyadh, and signaled that it will not let the matter be brushed aside without significant concessions.

Playing up the Khashoggi affair, Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper reported Friday there is a second audio recording of his death that supposedly proves it was premeditated. The 15-member hit squad purportedly discusses how to carry out the killing before Khashoggi has arrived at the embassy, and makes an international call.

The Saudi version is that the hit team tried to persuade Khashoggi to return to the kingdom and that he died accidentally after ingesting an excessive quantity of an injected drug. Five Saudi officials may be  sentenced to death over the murder, and others face lesser charges.

Gülen, a onetime ally of the Turkish president who became his foe, has denied any link to the 2016 coup attempt. “The perception that I control all of this … that I tell people to do things and that they are doing them … there is no such thing,” he told NPR last year from his home in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania.

“I think the United States is mindful of its reputation for its democracy and rule of law, and if they are willing to risk that reputation by extraditing me based on the request and claims made by Turkey, I would never say no. I would go willingly,” Gülen added.

His precarious position has led some observers to draw parallels between his case and that of Khashoggi, who became a US resident after falling out with the ruling authorities in his home country.