ISTANBUL – A vast corruption scandal could damage Turkey's powerful leader in a way that anti-government protests which brought thousands into the streets this summer failed to do.
This time, many Turks believe it all comes down to one man: a U.S.-based spiritual leader who the West extols as a model of moderate Islam and who some Turks see as a sinister puppet master.
Turkish investigators this week launched early morning raids that targeted close allies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — including the sons of three cabinet ministers as well as key business leaders and civil servants — amid revelations of illicit money transfers to Iran and large-scale bribery for construction projects.
In a country where conspiracy theories are legion, Turks take it as an article of fact that the raid was orchestrated by Fetullah Gulen, part of an epic power struggle with Erdogan, a leader once considered unassailable.
The evidence for that is tenuous and Gulen has denied any involvement in the investigations. But there is little question that he has an outsize influence in his native country and that ties between his movement and Erdogan's Islamic-based government have been broken.
Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in in Pennsylvania's Poconos resort area, is believed to have millions of followers of his Hizmet movement, a network of Muslim believers who command a global empire of business, media and education interests.
The U.S. has lauded Gulen for his schools around the world, which it sees as a potential alternative to madrassas that teach radical interpretations of Islam. But in a state built on secular principles, many Turks see Gulen's influence in a more ominous light.
Commentators and lawmakers say Gulen, who was acquitted in 2008 on Turkish charges of plotting to establish Islamic law, has so infiltrated the country's justice and police departments with his followers that even the prime minister could be vulnerable.
They allege that the prosecutor who launched the corruption probe against Erdogan's government is a Gulen follower — a theory the prime minister himself has espoused. This week Erdogan warned of a "dirty operation" carried out by "a state with a state."
Professor Dogu Ergil, a political scientist who has published a book on Gulen, says he has sought to create a movement that would help traditional Muslims thrive in the modern world. That includes helping Muslim children get scholarships and admission to elite schools and opening doors for followers through fellow supporters.
"The movement is like a constantly expanding honeycomb," Ergil said. But the image of a long-distance Machiavelli in Pennsylvania orchestrating a plot against the Turkish government by fiat is an unlikely one, he said.
"The man is an inspirational leader. He doesn't have the expertise or skills to steer or manage the enormous movement," Ergil said.
Ahmet Sik, a Turkish investigative journalist who wrote a critical book called "The Imam's Army," said the movement's influence is hard to pinpoint.
"The movement is not a transparent structure and they don't walk around with signs on their foreheads," Sik said. "But we know from the goings-on within the bureaucracy that they have organized themselves within the state structure."
Gulen supporters say Erdogan is trying to demonize the movement to distract from the corruption scandal, pointing to threatening outside forces as he did during the protests that rocked Turkey in June.
Since the corruption and fraud investigation came into the open, the government has removed dozens of police officers involved in it from their posts. Erdogan has also vowed to go after "gangs" of alleged conspirators.
Tensions came into the open weeks ago when the government discussed plans to close test prep schools, many of which are run by the Hizmet movement and are a key source of their funding and influence. The plan was met with fury by supporters and even Gulen himself, who preached of the tyranny of "pharaohs."
The split between Erdogan and the Hizmet movement carries some irony. Some of the same investigators probing the corruption allegations were also involved in the prosecutions of an alleged plot to overthrow Erdogan soon after he came to power in 2002.
That prosecution of some 250 people — including Turkey's former military chief, politicians and journalists — was widely credited with defanging Turkey's once-supreme military and putting Erdogan in the preeminent position of power in Turkey.
But the case also removed many of the common enemies that helped forge the alliance between Erdogan and Gulen's movement.
AP writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.
Follow Desmond Butler on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/desmondbutler