Turkish media reported on Monday that Arif Erdem, a former footballer associated with the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) was in New York. The broadcaster 24 TV released photos of a man apparently resembling Erdem having lunch at a restaurant.
Like other members of the terrorist group, Turkey has asked the United States to extradite Erdem two years ago but media outlets reported that the U.S. officials failed to fulfill this request, claiming no knowledge of his whereabouts in the country. Erdem was spotted by some Turkish expats in Manassas, Virginia in January 2020, years after he fled Turkey after the coup attempt by FETÖ was quashed and his photos had then made headlines in Turkish media.
Erdem, 50, a former footballer and football manager who shone in Süper Lig’s top outfit Galatasaray in the 1990s and early 2000s, is among renowned figures from the sports world accused of involvement with FETÖ. Another former Galatasaray star Hakan Şükür, wanted for his links to the terrorist group in a separate investigation also resides in the United States.
He has been put on a trial following the coup attempt, along with former footballers, managers and player agents Zafer Biryol, İsmail Demiriz, İsmail Şengül and Ersin Güreler who were sentenced to six years and three months each on charges of membership of a terrorist group. An Istanbul court had ordered a separate trial for Erdem on the same charges and in 2020, Justice Ministry had formally asked for the extradition of Erdem from the U.S. Other defendants in the case had admitted frequent meetings with FETÖ’s fugitive leader Fetullah Gülen, in the company of Erdem, while Gülen was in Turkey, as well as attending meetings with other members of the terrorist group. The indictment against Erdem also says that he had hundreds of phone calls and message exchanges with Gülen between 2012 and 2013. A former FETÖ member who was an eyewitness in the case had claimed Erdem collected money from fellow players after the national team he capped for won third place in the 2002 World Cup. Money, paid as bonuses to players, was delivered to Gülen’s aide Cevdet Türkyolu, the eyewitness has claimed.
The United States has long been a haven for FETÖ members, especially after its leader Gülen settled in the country more than two decades ago. Gülen lives in a posh compound run by a foundation linked to the terrorist group in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania and had given interviews to several media outlets following the 2016 coup attempt. Turkey had repeatedly sought his extradition from Washington but the case was entangled in an apparent bureaucratic hurdle, with no formal approval of extradition or preventive arrest. Gülen’s residence in the United States and the presence of other prominent FETÖ members in the country remain a source of a rift between otherwise close allies.
Turkey has been looking for the extradition of hundreds of FETÖ members from abroad and lodged formal requests following the 2016 coup attempt. So far, at least 121 FETÖ members were extradited from 29 countries.
FETÖ faces increased scrutiny after its bid to seize power by using infiltrators in the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) failed thanks to strong public resistance. Thousands of people were detained or arrested following the putsch bid for their links to FETÖ. Operations against the group continue to this day. On Monday, Chief Prosecutor’s Office in the capital Ankara issued arrest warrants for 53 suspects in a probe over a terrorist group’s network of infiltrators in the Foreign Ministry.
Eleven suspects were detained so far. Operations are underway in 12 provinces to capture the suspects including five people still working in the ministry and others who were earlier dismissed on suspicion of links to FETÖ. Suspects were identified through their correspondence via Bylock, an encrypted messaging app developed and exclusively used by FETÖ members, as well as their contacts with “handlers” for the group’s infiltrators via public payphones. Some suspects were involved in terrorist group’s fraud schemes in exams for positions in the public sector. The terrorist group is known for stealing such exams’ papers to facilitate the admission of its loyal members in the public sector, a scheme which would almost pay off when a large number of military officers, including those admitted to the army through such exams, attempted to topple the government.