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Despite Washington's Denials, Many Turks Think U.S. Had Role In Coup Attempt

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Three weeks after a failed coup in Turkey, the government there is still pointing the finger at a U.S.-based cleric living in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains. And many Turks have jumped to a further conclusion. They think the U.S. had a role in the coup attempt. Washington denies this, but let's listen to some of those voices from Turkey. Here's NPR's Peter Kenyon.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Turks are overwhelmingly convinced the cleric Fethullah Gulen was behind the coup, although some of the evidence is a bit mysterious. Take this 20-second ad from the pro-Gulen Zaman newspaper, which aired last fall, more than nine months before the coup attempt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENYON: It opens with an aerial view of a city as a siren wails. Then the siren cuts off and the silence is broken by a baby's laughter and a boom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENYON: You may ask, how does this prove Gulen was behind the coup? And the social media users who were passing this video around online might reply, the baby is laughing. And what's the Turkish word for laughing? Gulen. But if Gulen was behind the coup and Gulen is in America, does that mean America backed the coup? At an Istanbul barbershop, a knot of men gather around a reporter to say, you bet it does.

Ship captain Ugur Yazgan, these days, he mainly runs a yacht for tourists, says everybody knows America's deep state had a hand in the failed coup.

UGUR YAZGAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: "It's obvious the deep state in America was behind this," he says, "including the CIA. The CIA was definitely in on it. And Fethullah Gulen is their tool." Turks are well acquainted with the concept of a deep state. Last century, it referred to the secular military elite. In this century, it's come to mean a shadowy network of Gulen supporters. But how do they know the CIA is involved?

A man who gives his first name, Levent, says you only need to look at how Gulen got his U.S. residency visa. He's referring to the fact that one of the people who wrote letters supporting Gulen's greencard application is Graham Fuller, a former CIA official. Fuller has written that he wrote the letter as a private citizen and believes Gulen to be a force for moderation in the Islamic world.

Turkey experts are watching this expanding anti-American sentiment closely. Asli Bali, director of UCLA's Center for Near East Studies, says so far, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is maintaining two narratives, telling domestic audiences the U.S. does back coups while assuring the West that Turkey doesn't believe America was involved.

She wonders if that can last.

ASLI BALI: Out of one of those narratives, specifically the narrative alleging a U.S. involvement, becomes the dominant narrative. I think that will signal a decision on the part of the Turkish government to double down on a position that jeopardizes those relationships with NATO, bilaterally with the United States, arguably with the European Union.

KENYON: Turkey has talked about pivoting toward the East before. And Russia expert Akin Unver, at Istanbul's Kadir Has University, says the current tensions will certainly look like an opportunity to Moscow, which is worried about NATO forces coming closer to its borders.

AKIN UNVER: If NATO is expanding, then Russia's priority is to create disunity, discord. So when Turkey and the United States disagree over something, of course, that rift benefits Russia immensely.

KENYON: Unver and his colleague, analyst Ahmet Kasim Han, agree that Turkey's overriding interests remain aligned with those of the West. But Han thinks this immediate crisis may turn on one question, how willing or able Washington may be to turn over Fethullah Gulen to Turkish authorities.

AHMET KASIM HAN: It is very, very important. Of course, Turkish side should also realize that much hinges on how to the dossier of extradition is prepared. But nevertheless, the U.S. should be showing the Turkish public that it is genuinely concerned and it's not turning a blind eye or a deaf ear.

KENYON: Turks already detect a certain tone deafness in the U.S. response, sending a military general instead of a diplomat as its first post-coup visitor. If Gulen isn't extradited, many Turks will believe their suspicions about the U.S. have been confirmed. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.