Tairod Pugh: US Air Force vet found guilty of trying to join ISIS

Updated: March 10, 2016
Tairod Pugh: US Air Force vet found guilty of trying to join ISIS

Tairod Pugh, a former US Air Force employee, intended to cross into Syria to join the abhorrent terror group, according to prosecutors.

Tairod Pugh, 48, of Neptune, New Jersey, an airplane mechanic who traveled to Turkey last year as part of a plan to cross the Syrian border and connect with ISIS, also was convicted of destroying four thumb drives to obstruct a government probe of his activities.

The anonymous jury deliberated 6 1⁄2 hours over two days after a seven-day trial that included testimony about an unsent letter to his wife found on Pugh’s laptop in which he said he planned to become a “mujahid.”

Tairod Pugh, who will face up to 35 years in prison at sentencing scheduled for Sept. 16 before U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis, did not react when the verdicts were read. But leaving court, his father said the charges were “unexpected” and he still believed Pugh was a loyal American.

“I love him,” Horace Pugh told reporters trailing him along the sidewalk. “He’s my son.”

Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Robert Capers said the case had significance as the first ISIS-supporter charge to go to trial and reach a verdict. “We hope it will act as a deterrent,” he said. “We want everyone to know that the U.S. government will remain vigilant.”

Tairod Pugh served in the Air Force from 1986 to 1990 as an avionics mechanic. Discharged honorably, he began working as a mechanic, converted to Islam, and in 2014 moved to the Mideast for a fresh start. There, he entered an arranged marriage with an Egyptian woman, his lawyer said in opening arguments.

There was no testimony about when or why Pugh was radicalized. But the government said he had expressed sympathy for jihad more than a decade ago. He was fired from a job in Kuwait in December 2014, and after spending some time with his wife in Egypt bought a one-way ticket to Turkey in January.

When he was stopped in Turkey last year, Tairod Pugh had two backpacks with contents including a black balaclava, or hooded mask, and solar-powered flashlight and charger. In addition to the letter to his wife, his laptop had jihadist video links to ISIS propaganda and maps of ISIS controlled areas of Syria.

In addition, upon his return to the United States, an undercover agent posing as an ISIS adherent approached Pugh at Kennedy Airport and spoke elliptically about how to avoid attracting attention in Turkey. But prosecutors had no evidence he made any actual ISIS contacts over social media, which experts said recruits typically do.

The defense didn’t dispute that Pugh, a Muslim, sympathized with the jihadist cause, but said he couldn’t be prosecuted for his views and argued that the government never disproved Pugh’s claim that he went to Turkey to look for work and relax after losing the Kuwait job.

Defense lawyer Eric Creizman said after the verdict that Pugh had rejected plea bargains, insisting to his lawyers, “There’s not going to be a deal. I’m innocent.”

Creizman said an appeal was likely, and one key issue would be Garaufis’ decision to allow prosecutors to introduce the letter to Pugh’s wife found on his laptop — the single most incriminating piece of evidence at the trial.

The defense argued that it should be excluded as a confidential marital communication. But Garaufis ruled that it was only privileged if Pugh intended to actually send it, and the defense hadn’t adequately proven that he did.