Jury Finds Air Force Veteran Guilty in First Conviction After Trial in the United States for Attempting to Travel Overseas to Join ISIL

(DOJFormer U.S. Air Force Airplane Mechanic Convicted of Attempting to Provide Material Support to Terrorists and Obstruction of an Official Proceeding

A jury in the Eastern District of New York today found Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh, 48, of Neptune, New Jersey, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, guilty of attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a designated foreign terrorist organization, and obstructing an official proceeding.

The verdict was announced by Assistant Attorney General for National Security John P. Carlin, U.S. Attorney Robert L. Capers of the Eastern District of New York, Assistant Director in Charge Diego Rodriguez of the FBI’s New York Field Office and Commissioner William J. Bratton of the New York City Police Department.

“Pugh, an American citizen and former member of the U.S. Air Force where he served as an aircraft mechanic, attempted to travel to Syria to provide material support to ISIL,” said Assistant Attorney General Carlin.  “This is the first conviction after a trial by jury in the United States involving an individual who attempted to travel to Syria to join ISIL, and further demonstrates our commitment to bring to justice all those who seek to provide material support to terrorists.  I would like to thank all the members of law enforcement whose tireless efforts made this result possible.”

“Today’s verdict provides yet another example of a successful outcome in our national security effort, and demonstrates the crucial role that law enforcement action plays in that effort,” said U.S. Attorney Capers.  “The evidence presented at trial and the jury’s verdict instill confidence that our law enforcement agencies and their many important partners at home and abroad work effectively to disrupt and defeat the deadly siren’s call of terrorist groups around the globe.  Pugh has now been held accountable for his crimes by a jury and will not reach the terrorist group he sought to support.”

“As presented in trial, Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh was willing to become a martyr, using his U.S. military training as a weapon for ISIL,” said Assistant Director in Charge Rodriguez.  “Instead, found guilty of his crimes, he is facing a lengthy incarceration.  We are pleased the jury found his actions confirmed his expressed desire to cause violence and destruction on behalf of this terrorist organization.  The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces continue to work globally with our partners to successfully stop such actions before they happen, keep communities safe and bring criminals to justice.”

“We applaud today’s verdict, finding the first ISIL defendant guilty after attempting to travel to Syria and wage jihad,” said Commissioner Bratton.  “Those who adhere to ISIL’s deadly terrorist agenda should be on notice: reject this ideology or face swift justice in American courts. It is fitting that the first ISIL conviction case is here in the Eastern District of New York, which has prosecuted more terrorism cases than any other district in the country. It is to them — and the many others on the Joint Terrorism Task Force — that New Yorkers owe their gratitude for the relentless efforts to keep our city safe.”

At trial, the government presented evidence that prior to traveling overseas to try to join ISIL, Pugh served in the Air Force as an avionics instrument system specialist and received training in the installation and maintenance of aircraft engines, navigation and weapons systems.  After leaving the Air Force, the defendant worked for a number of companies in the United States and Middle East as an airplane mechanic.  Pugh lived abroad for over a year before his arrest in this case.

On Jan. 10, 2015, the defendant traveled from Egypt to Turkey in an effort to cross the border into Syria to join ISIL to engage in violent “jihad.”  However, Turkish authorities denied the defendant entry and returned him to Egypt.  At the time of his detention, Pugh was carrying a laptop computer and four USB thumb drives that he had stripped of their plastic casings in an effort to destroy their contents and thereby make them unavailable to investigators.  The defendant also was carrying solar power chargers, compasses and a black ski mask.  Foreign government officials deported the defendant to the United States, where the FBI closely monitored him, relying in part on a covert undercover employee who encountered the defendant at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York.  The defendant was arrested on Jan. 16, 2015, in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and thereafter indicted in the Eastern District of New York.

At trial, the government presented evidence obtained from the defendant’s laptop computer and social media posts.  The defendant’s laptop contained Internet searches for “borders controlled by Islamic state.”  The government also introduced evidence of the defendant’s Internet searches for “Flames of War” (an ISIL propaganda video) as well as terrorist videos he had downloaded, including one horrific video showing ISIL members executing prisoners.  In addition, statements to coworkers and social media posts established Pugh’s empathy and support for ISIL’s cause and terrorist methods.

At trial, the government also introduced a letter drafted by Pugh on Jan. 5, 2015, shortly before he left Egypt for Turkey on his way to Syria.  In that letter, the defendant proclaimed, “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 State.  There is only 2 possible outcomes for me.  Victory or Martyr.”

Based on his trial convictions, the defendant faces a maximum sentence of up to 35 years in prison.  Sentencing has not yet been scheduled, but is expected to occur later this year.

Assistant Attorney General Carlin joined U.S. Attorney Capers in extending his grateful appreciation to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), as well as to the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of New Jersey, the Asbury Park Police Department and the Neptune Police Department.

The government’s case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Samuel P. Nitze, Tiana A. Demas and Mark Bini of the Eastern District of New York, with assistance provided by Trial Attorney Larry Schneider of the National Security Division’s Counterterrorism Section.

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