NEW YORK – On Jan. 10 of last year, Tairod Pugh, a U.S. Air Force veteran who spent two decades as an airplane mechanic, boarded EgyptAir Flight 737 with a one-way ticket from Cairo to Istanbul, Turkey.
Among the possessions he carried with him were two compasses, a solar-powered flashlight and a black face mask.
But Pugh never made it out of Ataturk Airport. Turkish security officials stopped Pugh and sent him back to Egypt, where he was deported to the United States. FBI agents apprehended him in New Jersey, making Pugh one of 61 people arrested in the U.S. last year for allegedly supporting the militant group that calls itself the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
On Wednesday at the Federal District Court in Brooklyn, Pugh became the first accused ISIS supporter to be convicted by a jury trial in the U.S. The federal jury agreed with the prosecutors’ contention that Pugh tried to cross from Turkey to Syria to join ISIS. He faces up to 35 years in prison when he’s sentenced in September.
“No typical profile of an ISIS recruit”
Prior to his arrest, Pugh had no criminal record. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force from 1986 to 1990, rising to Airman First Class. A devout Muslim convert, he moved to the Middle East in 2013, where worked in Dubai and Kuwait. He was fired in December 2014 and used his last payment to purchase his plane ticket to Turkey.
The jury found Pugh guilty of attempting to provide material support to the terrorist organization, as well as obstructing an official proceeding for destroying evidence. “Material support,” the most common charge in several hundred terrorism cases since Sept. 11, has become the most common charge in more than 80 cases on the ISIS docket since 2014.
At 48, Pugh is the oldest of the ISIS defendants, whose average age is 26. Most have not been accused of plotting attacks on the homeland, but roughly half attempted to travel overseas to link up with ISIS, according to an analysis by the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and by the Program on Extremism Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University.
“It clearly showed there is no typical profile of an ISIS recruit,” said GWU program deputy director Seamus Hughes, who sees Pugh as a self-directed loner. “You have a guy who was clearly frustrated where he was in his life and looking for something else. He wanted to be part of something bigger.”
The case against Pugh
Investigators found most of the incriminating evidence against Pugh on his laptop. He had downloaded more than 70 ISIS-related videos, some of which were played in court, including ISIS propaganda films like “Flames of War” that showed beheadings of Western prisoners. There were numerous photos of heavily-armed men and a 68-page book on the obligation to perform jihad.
FBI analysts found Pugh had conducted web searches for Mosul, Iraq, when the city was controlled by ISIS, and had perused a New York Times map showing areas of Syria under ISIS control. He searched for places to cross the Turkey-Syria border, such as the bustling border province of Gaziantep, which Assistant United States Attorney Tiana Demas called “a well-worn foreign fighter route” into Syria.
“The defendant searched for these cities, because he was looking to go there,” Demas told the jury in closing arguments. Taken together, the videos and the web searches, she said, “show his intent; they show what was going on in his mind.”
Defense attorney Eric Creizman agreed Pugh’s state of mind was the key to the case. But he argued the “revolting” material on the laptop revealed only that Pugh was “fascinated with” ISIS and it was a group “which he admired,” not that he wanted to take up arms. “This is a fantasy,” Creizman said.
“This case is about looking at the surface,” he said, “and making a rash conclusion.” Creizman said the evidence presented by the prosecution in the case was circumstantial.
The defendant’s story – that he was looking for a job in Turkey – was challenged by prosecutors, who said Pugh was not carrying a resume on the trip.
In addition, the prosecution said none of the 20,000 web searches Pugh conducted on his laptop between October 2014 and January 2015 were for a job in Turkey, and he did not send a single email to a prospective employer during that time.
A former co-worker testified Pugh had told him ISIS was looking for pilots and mechanics, and said, “They’re paying big dollars.”
Prosecutors said Pugh’s Facebook messages also implied his desire to join the group. “He was a guy talking to anybody and not getting much traction.”, Seamus said of the evidence. “It didn’t look like he had any like-minded friends in the U.S.”
A letter to his wife Pugh drafted five days before his departure but never sent was presented as key evidence against Pugh. “I am a Mujahid,” he wrote, using the Arabic word for “holy warrior.”
“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 State. There is only 2 possible outcomes for me. Victory or Martyr,” Pugh wrote.
“The defendant intended to submit himself to ISIS direction and control,” prosecutor Demas said in her closing argument. “He knew his skills as an airport mechanic would be welcomed by ISIS.”
Pugh did not testify at trial. After five days of testimony and evidence, the jury took one full day of deliberations to reach its unanimous verdict — only 14 months after Pugh’s arrest.
“This is yet another demonstration that terrorism cases are best handled in the federal courts as opposed to military commissions,” said Karen Greenberg, the executive director of Fordham’s Center on National Security.
Returning foreign fighters part of ISIS threat to US & allies, report says
The nation’s second ISIS material support trial began jury deliberations on Friday, in the case against Abdul Malik Abdul Kareem, a Muslim convert who prosecutors called the “motivator” and the “bankroller” of two men who sought to shoot attendees at a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, last year.
Of 84 individuals charged for supporting ISIS, 24 defendants have pleaded guilty in pretrial proceedings.
Returning foreign fighters from Syria – as Pugh could have become in the government’s depiction — are an increasing part of the ISIS-directed threat against the U.S. and its allies, according to a report last week from the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, #Terror Gone Viral.
“This includes the Paris attackers, the assailants responsible for killing Western tourists at a Tunisian museum and beach resort, the suspect behind the shooting at a Jewish museum in Brussels in 2014,” the report said.
The Soufan Group, founded by a former FBI counterterrorism agent and stacked with ex-national security officials, estimated in December that 31,000 “foreign fighters” traveled to Syria. Most are thought to be from North Africa and Central Asia, though an estimated 7,000 are citizens or residents of Western countries, including 250 from the U.S.
“The numbers of foreign fighters from North America and Europe have plateaued since late 2014,” said Soufan Group special projects director Patrick Sinner, a former CIA case officer.
“U.S. law enforcement has done an amazing job of detecting and then disrupting ISIS plots and travel,” Sinner said. “The upside of social media is these people radicalize in plain sight, and often brag about it before travel.”