“You must move within the arteries of the system, and if you decide to retreat, you must do so without being noticed. This is vital for the organisation’s future,” said Fetullah Gulen in 1999, during one of his regular sermons.
Since the attempted coup in Turkey by some rogue soldiers in July 2016, the organisation run by Gulen has come under the spotlight.
The details – which investigators have pieced together over the years – paint a picture of a deep-rooted organisation that spent decades trying to infiltrate various state institutions.
Gulen’s organisation is allegedly rooted in one of the biggest Turkish movements, The Society of Light (Nur Cemaati), established by Said Nursi, a prominent religious scholar and writer, in the early period of the Republic.
Since it was established around 40 years ago, the Gulenist group, which called itself simply "the Service" (Hizmet), created a vast network of student dormitories and private houses, called Houses of Light (Isik Evleri), where religious discussions would take place. The group would use these facilities to recruit more young people into its own ranks.
Over the years, the Gulen schools and centres spread to around 160 countries around the world. In Turkey, the group's religious undertones attracted a large number of followers, while it mostly refrained from branding itself as a religious group outside of Turkey.
Especially in the US and Europe, it projected itself as a progressive, pro-western, social welfare organisation that promoted inter-religious dialogue.
“Don’t act until such time as you have all the state power. Each step taken would be considered early, until you have brought all the power to your side,” Fetullah Gulen said in that same 1999 sermon, preaching to his followers to infiltrate state institutions.
Sixteen years after he made those remarks, his group has been charged with what Gulen had earlier insinuated: infiltrating Turkey’s state institutions, including the army, the police and the judiciary – and instigating a coup on July 15, 2016, which left at least 250 people dead and thousands injured.
The Turkish government had listed Gulen's organisation, FETO, as a terrorist group just weeks before the failed coup.
Fast forward two years, the organisation now is in “survival mode,” Robert Amsterdam, a UK-based international lawyer, tells TRT World. Amsterdam and his company have been hired by Turkey “to conduct a global investigation” on FETO “to expose allegedly unlawful conduct by the Gulen network worldwide.”
Between July 2016, when the coup attempt took place, and April 2018, the government identified thousands of FETO members who had infiltrated various state institutions.
Gulen charter schools: two missions, one at standstill
Amsterdam, who has been investigating the structure of the group that Gulen created, says now the organisation will do “whatever it takes” to survive, even if that means laundering money, which it had raised from donations.
Amsterdam says, the charter schools of the organisation around the world simply serve two basic purposes: "Recruitment and money-laundering."
The Turkish government says the charter schools run by FETO are a cover to funnel money for other purposes.
In Turkey, Gulen-run schools were known to focus on high achieving students and help them prepare for entry tests to high schools and universities. For these preparations, the students would be taken to special camps run under strict supervision where young boys and girls were also indoctrinated with Gulenist literature.
Those training sessions were a way for the group to win over the loyalty of the students who were later asked to do voluntary work or make donations for the organisation once they started their career.
More incriminating details about the secretive group have surfaced in recent years.
A Washington Post article published in 2016 told the story of a teacher who used to work at one of the Gulen schools in the US and was forced to handover more than 40 percent of his salary to a secret fund of the group.
Another method the organisation uses to collect money is called “himmet” or religious donations, a system that encourages followers to make contributions.
Amsterdam says the system persists in the US, and the educational institutions are the ultimate tool to justify the wealth of the organisation there.
“A lot of Turks working for the group’s institutions are very angry that 40 percent of their income is going back to Gulen. A lot of the information we have comes from whistleblowers, the members of the cult who have left,” he says.
Following the coup attempt, the government shut down more than 1,000 Gulen-linked educational institutions across Turkey and called on international allies to take similar steps against the group’s establishments.
“Now also many countries are becoming more aware of their activities, for example, Germany has now come to a point to agree with the Turkish government on [the] Gulen issue,” Amsterdam says.
Since 1999, Fetullah Gulen has been living under self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, US, from where he continues to direct the organisational affairs.
“[In the US alone] they have over 200 schools linked to Fetullah Gulen, and it means thousands of potential recruits,” Amsterdam says. But Amsterdam’s research shows that now people are more informed and less sympathetic to Gulen-run institutions.
“People see [Gulen’s] schools or hear about them, their books are everywhere and they google it to find out what they are. Recruiting is harder for them now, so they have to make sure that the illegal money flow is reaching the cult leader to keep the organisation running,” he says.
Different tactics, same aim
In Turkey, education became the organisation’s gateway to infiltrate state institutions, as the people who were recruited in Gulen-run institutions would be placed in strategic positions.
A woman, G B, who asked not to be named, told TRT World that her son, who was a high performer in middle school, was offered free education in one of the organisation’s prep schools for high school exams.
“After a while, one of the parents whose son was in the same class with my son warned me, saying, 'They will force your child to go to the military high school.' I was worried and went to the school to discuss it with the management. It assured me that wasn’t the case.”
G B’s son was one of the students who were staying at the dormitories to focus on the exam and a mentor was training him. But as time passed, G B says she started hear less from her son and found out they forced him to take the military high school exams without her knowledge.
“When I told them that it’s not acceptable for me, they said I should not be worried about my son because they have 'higher-ups' in the upper ranks inside the Turkish military structure,” she said.
Refusing to go to military school, G B’s son eventually cut his ties with the organisation completely. Now he is about to finish medical school in Istanbul.
“The most interesting thing is,” Amsterdam says, “the complaints from parents and the students around the world – from Texas to African countries – are always the same.”
He says, most commonly, the parents complain that their kids are being recorded without their information and their kids are "brainwashed."
“At the moment, the US, is not only tolerating, it’s openly supporting Gulenists,” Amsterdam says.
“We know that they try to infiltrate the US institutions – we know it through our investigation, including testimonies of people.”
Amsterdam says, “The US is aware of the organisation’s activities in the US,” but still “their criminal activities pose a very big threat for the US as well – and those would have an effect in Turkey.”
“But if we don’t do anything to stop them," it could have great repercussions, he concludes.