Air Force veteran tried to join Islamic State, indictment says

Air Force veteran is accused of trying to enter Turkey in attempt to join Islamic State

An Air Force veteran and former mechanic for a major U.S. airline was indicted this week on charges that he traveled overseas and attempted to fight alongside Islamic State militants in the Middle East, federal investigators said Tuesday.

Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh, 47, of Neptune, N.J., was arrested in January after Egyptian authorities deported him back to the United States, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn, N.Y. 

Pugh, who had been working as an airplane mechanic in the region, attempted to travel from Egypt to Turkey, allegedly to join Islamic State,  on Jan. 10, but he was denied entry by Turkish authorities. 

When he was returned to the United States on Jan. 14, members of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York searched his electronic devices and found multiple searches for information about crossing the border from Turkey into Syria. He had also downloaded more than 180 propaganda videos that showed Islamic State militants executing hostages and committing other acts of violence.

“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 in charge of the FBI's New York City field office, said in a statement.

Pugh served in the Air Force as a system specialist from 1986 to 1990, according to court filings. He was trained in the installation and maintenance of various kinds of U.S. aircraft engines and navigation and weapons systems.

He was stationed in Arizona and Britain during his four years of service, according to an Air Force spokesman. It was not clear if Pugh was honorably discharged.

Pugh had been on the FBI's radar since 2001. While working as a mechanic for American Airlines, he told a co-worker he sympathized with Osama bin Laden, according to the complaint. One year later, he told a friend he wanted to travel to Chechnya and "fight jihad." Both of the people Pugh spoke with contacted federal investigators.

His anger toward the United States began to materialize in 1998, according to the complaint, when he moved to San Antonio, "converted to Islam and became increasingly radical in his beliefs."

Pugh had been living in Egypt, Dubai and Jordan since 2013, relatives told the FBI, and was working as an airport mechanic in the region shortly before he was arrested. 

His attempt to join Islamic State was thwarted on Jan. 10, when he was stopped by security forces in Ataturk Airport in Istanbul. Pugh, who identified himself as a pilot with the U.S. military, refused to allow airport officials to search his laptop. He was sent back to Cairo, and then deported to the U.S.

In the weeks before his flight to Turkey, Pugh made his intentions to join Islamic State clear in an email to his wife, whom he met in Egypt sometime in the last year, according to the complaint.

“I am a sword against the oppressor and a shield for the oppressed," he wrote in the December 2014 email. "I will use the talents and skills given to be by Allah to establish and defend the Islamic States. There is only 2 possible outcomes for me. Victory or Martyr.”

Pugh, who is charged with attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization, faces up to 35 years in prison if convicted, federal investigators said. His next court appearance is scheduled for Wednesday.

Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan contributed to this report.

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT on Twitter for breaking news.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

12:59 p.m.: This post was updated with additional information about Pugh's military service and information containted in the criminal complaint.

The first version of this post published at 12:17 p.m.

63°