Air Force vet charged with trying to join ISIS

An American citizen and U.S. Air Force veteran who worked as an airplane mechanic and was trained in weapons systems was charged Tuesday with trying to go to Syria to fight for ISIS, said federal prosecutors.

Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh, 47, of Asbury Park, N.J., was arrested Jan. 16, before he could carry out his plan to join the black-clad jihadist army, authorities said. He was indicted on two counts of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and obstruction of justice, U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said in a news release.

“As alleged, Pugh, an American citizen, was willing to travel overseas and fight jihad alongside terrorists seeking to do us harm.”

— Diego Rodriguez, assistant director, FBI New York Field Office

“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,” Lynch said.

Pugh was an Air Force avionics instrument system specialist who received training in the installation and maintenance of aircraft engine, navigation and weapons systems, prosecutors said. After serving in the Air Force from 1986-1990, Pugh worked for companies in the United States and Middle East and had lived abroad for over a year before his arrest.

Prosecutors say he tried to join ISIS after he was fired from a job as an airplane mechanic somewhere in the Middle East, traveling from Egypt to Turkey in a bid to cross into Syria to join ISIS. Turkish authorities nabbed Pugh at the border Jan. 10 and sent him back to Egypt, prosecutors said. Egyptian authorities confiscated a multiple electronic devices, including four USB thumb drives that had been stripped of their plastic casings and an iPod that had been wiped clean of data, according to prosecutors. Pugh was deported to the United States and arrested days later after FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force agents executed a search warrant and seized his laptop, authorities said.

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    Recent Internet searches on the computer included one for “borders controlled by Islamic state,” “who controls Kobani,” “Kobani border crossing,” and “Jarablus border crossing,” all references to Syrian cities under ISIS control at the time. The computer also contained downloaded ISIS videos, including one showing terrorists executing prisoners.

    After Pugh was arrested, agents obtained warrants to search two backpacks Pugh had carried overseas, and allegedly found two compasses, a solar-powered flashlight, a solar-powered power source, shards of broken USB thumb drives, a fatigue jacket and camping clothes.

    "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 ISI[S],” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Carlin. “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.”

    While dozens and possibly scores of Americans are believed to have gone to Syria or Iraq to fight with ISIS, also known as Islamic State, Pugh is believed to be the first military veteran to attempt to join the terrorist organization's so-called caliphate.

    It was not known which companies Pugh had worked for after leaving the Air Force, but Gryphon Airlinnes, a U.S. company with facilities in Kuwait and Afghanistan, said Pugh had tried to get a job with the firm and was rejected.

    "In third quarter 2014, Mr. Pugh was under consideration for a future Gryphon project, but did not meet the qualifications," a statement from the company read. "Gryphon declined to hire Mr. Pugh.  Gryphon personnel are cooperating with the authorities. Due to the ongoing investigation, Gryphon declines further comment.

    Pugh is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday morning before U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis of the Eastern District of New York. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison.

    Diego Rodriguez, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office, said Pugh was on his way to join the terrorist army that has drawn international condemnation for its savagery.

    “As alleged, Pugh, an American citizen, was willing to travel overseas and fight jihad alongside terrorists seeking to do us harm,” Rodriguez said.