WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration is exploring possible ways to remove U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, a foe of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, to convince Turkey to ease pressure on Saudi Arabia over the killing of a Saudi journalist, NBC News reported on Thursday.
A White House official told Reuters the NBC story was “not accurate,” but did not elaborate.
NBC, citing four sources, said Trump administration officials asked federal law enforcement agencies to look into whether Gulen, accused by Erdogan of instigating a failed 2016 coup, could legally be forced out of the United States.
Gulen’s media adviser, Alp Aslandogan, said he had not been informed of any new U.S. inquiry.
Erdogan has long demanded that Washington extradite Gulen, who denies any involvement in the attempted coup and has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999. U.S. officials have said the courts need sufficient evidence to extradite the elderly cleric.
Erdogan ramped up pressure on Saudi Arabia after U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi rulers, was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he had gone to pick up documents related to his upcoming marriage.
Saudi Arabia is considered critical to President Donald Trump’s effort to curb Iran’s growing influence in the region.
Erdogan has insisted Khashoggi’s killing was ordered at the “highest levels” of the Saudi government and has kept pressure on de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“The White House has not been involved in any discussions relating the extradition of Fethullah Gulen to the death of Jamal Khashoggi,” the White House official said.
A senior Turkish official told Reuters that Turkey’s extradition request and its Khashoggi investigation were separate issues “not connected in any way, shape or form.”
NBC News cited sources as saying the Trump administration had directed the Justice Department and FBI to reopen Turkey’s case for Gulen’s extradition and also asked the Department of Homeland Security for information about his legal status.
NBC News said one option the administration was considering was trying to force Gulen to relocate to South Africa.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said U.S. authorities continued to evaluate material Turkey has provided on Gulen but that it remained a Justice Department matter and the White House had not been involved in any extradition discussions.
The Justice Department and the FBI declined comment. A source familiar with Justice Department operations was unaware of any kind of significant investigation related to Gulen.
NBC said career officials at the agencies had pushed back at the White House requests.
(Reporting by David Alexander, Matt Spetalnick, Humeyra Pamuk and Sarah Lynch in Washington and Daren Butler in Ankara; Editing by Susan Thomas and Peter Cooney)