A former U.S. Air Force mechanic with radical Islamic beliefs and ties to the Middle East is accused of trying to join the terror group ISIS in an effort to “fight violent jihad”.
Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh was indicted Monday on charges he supported ISIS, also known as ISIL, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Loretta Lynch said Tuesday.
Lynch, who has been nominated to replace outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, said in a statement:
Born and raised in the United States, Pugh allegedly turned his back on his country and attempted to travel to Syria in order to join a terrorist organization. We will continue to vigorously prosecute extremists, whether based here or abroad, to stop them before they are able to threaten the United States and its allies.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. He Was Caught Trying to Cross From Turkey into Syria, Prosecutors Say
The 47-year-old Pugh, of Neptune, New Jersey, was arrested in January via a secret criminal complaint and indicted Monday on charges of attempting to provide material support to a terror organization and obstruction and attempted obstruction of an official proceeding, the U.S. Attorney’s office said. He was taken into custody Jan. 16 in Ashbury Park, New Jersey and has been detained since.
According to prosecutors, Pugh, a U.S. citizen, traveled from Egypt to Turkey on Jan. 10 to try to cross the border into Syria to “join ISIL and fight violent jihad.” Prosecutors said he was denied entry by Turkish authorities and sent on a return flight to Egypt. According to court documents, Pugh claimed he was a U.S. Special Forces pilot and was entering Turkey on vacation. But Turkish authorities suspected Pugh was entering the country to cross into Syria after Pugh refused to let them search his laptop.
In Egypt, where he was detained, Pugh said he had traveled to Turkey to look for a job and had no desire to enter Syria, according to court documents. Pugh was deported to the United States. He returned to the U.S. on a flight that landed at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York on Jan. 15, according to prosecutors, the day before his arrest. Pugh was interviewed by a FBI agent at the airport, and Pugh talked about his experiences being kicked out of Turkey and Egypt, saying he should have shaved his beard and worn jeans in order to avoid suspicion, according to court documents. Authorities claim Pugh said he was kicked out of Turkey because Turkish officials thought he was affiliated with ISIS.
After he was arrested, agents obtained warrants to search two backpacks that Pugh had brought overseas, according to court documents. They found “two compasses, a solar-powered flashlight, a solar-powered power source, shards of broken USB thumb drives, a fatigue jacket and camping clothes,” prosecutors said.
According to prosecutors, Pugh was found with electronic devices that had been damaged when he returned to Egypt. According to the U.S. Attorney’s office the devices included:
Four USB thumb drives that had been stripped of their plastic casings and an iPod that had been wiped clean of data. The defendant also had a cellular telephone that contained, among other things, a photograph of a machinegun.
Also, according to court documents, his laptop had been damaged by water. Authorities accuse Pugh of deliberately tampering with his devices so that he investigators couldn’t access the data. About the machine gun photo, Pugh said he had no reason to have it on his phone other than simply liking the photograph, authorities said. Pugh also had photos on the undamaged phone of an airplane toilet and the area under airplane seats where carry-on baggage is typically stowed, according to court documents.
Pugh’s attorney, Michael Schneider, said his client plans to plead not guilty, according to CNN. He will be arraigned Wednesday in Brooklyn federal court.
Pugh faces up to 35 years in prison if convicted.
2. He Was Fired From His Job as an Airline Mechanic in Kuwait
According to his LinkedIn profile, Pugh worked for Gryphon Airlines in Kuwait as a maintenance manager, starting in September 2014. He says in his profile that he has 23 years experience in the Air Force and as a mechanic.
Gryphon Airlines is a private airline that is based in Kuwait City and was the first to offer flights from Kuwait to Baghdad, according to its website. The airline provides charter service in the Middle East, including flights into Afghanistan, as well as in Europe, North Africa and south central Asia and trans-Atlantic flights to and from the United States.
Authorities said Pugh was fired from that job in December 2014 and then decided to join ISIS. He had lived abroad for more than a year before his arrest. He had lived in the Middle East in part for about five years, according to court documents, including in Egypt, Jordan, Dubai and Kuwait.
Pugh served in the Air Force from 1986 to 1990 as an avionic instrument specialist, according to court documents. Prosecutors say he then worked several jobs as an aircraft mechanic in the Middle East and in the United States. From October 2009 to March 2010 he worked as an Army contractor for DynCorp in Iraq, working on aircraft avionics, according to court documents.
According to court filings, Pugh received training in the installation and maintenance of aircraft engine, navigation and weapons systems while in the Air Force.
“Pugh, an American citizen and former member of our military, allegedly abandoned his allegiance to the United States and sought to provide material support to ISIL,” Assistant Attorney General John Carlin said in a statement. “Identifying and bringing to justice individuals who provide or attempt to provide material support to terrorists is a key priority of the National Security Division.”
Diego Rodriguez, the FBI assistant director-in-charge of the New York Field office said in a statement:
As alleged, Pugh, an American citizen, was willing to travel overseas and fight jihad alongside terrorists seeking to do us harm. United States citizens who offer support to terrorist organizations pose a grave threat to our national security and will face serious consequences for their actions. We will continue to work with our partners, both here and abroad, to prevent acts of terrorism. This investigation demonstrates the importance of law enforcement coordination and collaboration here and around the world.
3. An American Airlines Co-Worker Told the FBI in 2001 That Pugh Sympathized With Bin Laden
Pugh converted to Islam in 1998 while living in Texas and became radical in his beliefs, according to an affidavit by a FBI agent unsealed Tuesday. He has been known to federal authorities since 2001.
The FBI first had contact with Pugh in 2001 while he was a mechanic for American Airlines. A co-worker reported to the FBI that Pugh said he sympathized with Osama bin Laden and was expressing anti-American sentiment. He also said the bombings of U.S. embassies overseas were justified, the FBI agent said.
In 2002, the FBI interviewed an associate of Pugh who told agents that Pugh “had expressed interest in traveling to Chechnya to fight jihad,” according to the affidavit.
After being detained in Egypt, he told authorities he didn’t want to be deported to the U.S. because “the U.S. doesn’t like black Muslims,” the FBI said.
Read the criminal complaint here:
Pugh’s now-deleted Facebook page included pro-Palestine and anti-Israel posts and photos, as well as anti-American military posts.
Last July, Pugh posted:
We had just finished the fasting of Ramadan. During that time the Shatans were locked up. All the evil done by man during this time was from the evil within ourselves. All the evil done by the Jews came from within themselves. On the day of Judgement full responsibility of the starving, torture, jailing and killing of innocent Muslims will rest upon there shoulders.
Allah must really hate them to give them the rope to hang themselves. They have collectively starved, tortured and killed a thousand innocent people. They had wounded thousands of people. They have destroyed the homes of thousands Muslims all during the month of Ramadan.
Dear Israelis you will burn in hell soooo long, soooo very long that those whom you have hurt will have forgotten you.
Take the time and try to imagine that. You will burn in a black flame for millions and millions and trillions of years. You will be forgotten and guess what? You will have no hope of getting out. You have deprived the Palestinians of water, your thirst will never be satisfied, you have deprived them of food, you will forever be hungry, you have deprived them of life Allah will deprive you the comfort of death. “I feel better already”
4. He is Married to an Egyptian Woman & Has Children in America
Prosecutors, in an effort to keep Pugh in custody, said in court documents that he has strong ties to Egypt, including to a woman he “has identified as his wife.” Prosecutors said:
The defendant poses a danger to the community because his attempt to join ISIL reflects his embrace of an extremely violent ideology. Were the defendant to be released into the community, there is every reason to expect he might continue his effort to support ISIL by, for example, engaging in acts of terrorism on American soil. … Furthermore in social media postings made prior to his arrest, the defendant repeatedly professed a desire never to return to the United States, notwithstanding the fact he has family, including children, in this country.
Pugh posted on Facebook about his wife, who he appears to have married in about April 2014.
The FBI interviewed Pugh’s wife and, according to the affidavit, she said Pugh told her several times he planned to travel to Palestine to “join jihad.”
In an email to his wife obtained by investigators, Pugh wrote:
I am a Mujahid. I am a sword against the oppressor and a shield for the oppressed. I will use the talents and skills given to me by Allah to establish and defend the Islamic States. There is only 2 possible outcomes for me. Victor or Martyr. If Allah gives us Victory we will have a home in Al-sham. I will send for you when it is safe. You will have a nice home around believers. If I am made a martyr we will have a mansion of undescribable beauty on a magnificent plot of land.
5. Prosecutors Say He Searched the Internet to Learn Where to Join ISIS
Prosecutors say computer files seized as evidence show that in December 2014 Pugh searched for “borders controlled by Islamic state,” “who controls kobani,” “kobani border crossing” and “jarablus border crossing.”
The searches were in reference to Syrian cities under ISIS control near the Turkish border, according to prosecutors. He also had a chart of crossing points between Turkey and Syria showing the areas on the Syrian side of the border controlled by ISIS and other groups, authorities said.
Agents from the New York-area Joint Terrorism Task Force obtained a search warrant for Pugh’s electronic devices, including his computer, on Jan. 14 and uncovered the data.
Pugh also searched the Internet for “Flames of War,” which prosecutors say is an ISIS propaganda video, and also downloaded about 180 jihadist videos, including one showing ISIS members executing prisoners.