The Department of Justice announced Wednesday that Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh, a U.S. citizen and former member of the U.S. Air Force, has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for attempting to join ISIS.
“The defendant turned his back on his country, and the military he once served, to attempt to join a brutally violent terrorist organization committed to the slaughter of innocent people throughout the world and the destruction of our way of life. Today’s sentence sends a powerful message that those who support terrorist groups and seek to obstruct the efforts of our law enforcement community will be brought to justice,” stated Acting U.S. Attorney Bridget M. Rohde.
Pugh, 49, of Neptune, New Jersey, was born and raised in the United States, and served in the U.S. Air Force from 1986 to 1990, where he was an avionic instrument specialist. There he received training in the installation and maintenance of aircraft engines, navigation, and weapons systems.
In 1998, while living in San Antonio, Texas, Pugh reportedly became very radical in his beliefs and converted to Islam.
In 2001, during the time he was working as a mechanic for American Airlines, a co-worker reported him to the FBI, stating that Pugh had expressed anti-American sentiment, expressed support for the bombings of U.S. embassies overseas, and said he sympathized with Osama bin Laden.
The FBI interviewed one of Pugh’s associates in 2002, who admitted that Pugh had “expressed interest in traveling to Chechnya to fight jihad.”
Court records indicate Pugh worked as an aircraft mechanic in several different jobs, both in the Middle East and in the United States. He was employed as an Army contractor for DynCorp in Iraq from October 2009 to March 2010.
Starting in September 2014, Pugh worked for a private airline, Gryphon Airlines, in Kuwait City as a maintenance manager. The company reportedly provides charter service in the Middle East. When he was fired from that job in December 2014, he then decided to join ISIS. By that time, he had lived in the Middle East for about five years, including Egypt, Jordan, Dubai and Kuwait.
On January 10, 2015, court records indicate Pugh flew from Egypt to Istanbul, Turkey, intending to go on to Syria, but he was detained by Turkish authorities at the airport. He told them he was a pilot with the U.S. Special Forces and was just coming to Turkey for vacation, but when he refused to allow them to search his laptop, Turkish authorities put him on a flight back to Egypt.
Upon arriving back in Egypt the evening of January 10, 2015, Egyptian authorities detained him, and he told them he had been to Turkey looking for a job. Authorities discovered that all the electronic devices Pugh had with him, including a laptop, iPod, two mobile phones and five USB thumb drives had been either wiped clean or intentionally damaged in an attempt to destroy the information on them.
Several photographs were found on his mobile phone, including a picture of a machine gun, and various storage areas of an airplane.
Pugh had married an Egyptian woman in April 2014, and told her several times that he intended to travel to Palestine and “join jihad.” He wrote to her in an email:
“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.”
After being able to search his laptop, FBI agents found about 180 jihadist propaganda videos, including execution and beheading videos, as well as a chart showing crossing points between Turkey and Syria which he had downloaded just five days before his flight to Istanbul.
Egyptian authorities deported Pugh back to the United States on January 15, 2015, where undercover agents were waiting for him. He was arrested the next day, and eventually convicted during a trial on March 9, 2016.
At his sentencing Wednesday, May 31, 2017, Assistant Director in Charge William J. Sweeney of the FBI said, “The alarming reality of this case is that Pugh served in the U.S. military but ultimately traded in his pledge to defend the United States to defend the Islamic State. Today’s sentencing should send a strong message to those who seek to support terrorist groups — they will face serious consequences for their actions. The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force 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.”
The following news segment is from CBS in March 2015, after his arrest but before his conviction:
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