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Air Force Veteran Becomes First American Convicted By Jury of Trying to Join the Islamic State

US Air Force Veteran Tairod Pugh spent years in the armed forces and as a military contractor before he decided to join the Islamic State.
Photo via EPA

On Wednesday, US Air Force Veteran Tairod Pugh became the first American to be convicted of trying to join the Islamic State by a jury of his peers.

After a week-long trial in Brooklyn federal court, the jury found Pugh, 48, guilty of attempting to provide material support to a designated terrorist organization, and obstruction for destroying four portable electronic storage devices.

"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," US Attorney Robert L. Capers said on Wednesday.  "Pugh has now been held accountable for his crimes by a jury and will not reach the terrorist group he sought to support."


Pugh's lawyer, Eric Creizman, said that the jury trial had been "fair."

"Of course, we are disappointed with the verdict as we put in great effort to defend the case," he said. "But the jury appeared to be fair and genuinely concerned about reaching the correct verdict as they saw it."

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At trial, prosecutors said Pugh immersed himself in violent Islamic State propaganda for months before buying a one-way flight from his home in Egypt to Turkey, where he hoped to cross the Syrian border into territory controlled by the extremist group.

The 48-year-old was first detained by Turkish authorities in Istanbul in January 2015, then deported back to Egypt, where Pugh had been living for a year. The Egyptians then deported him to the US, and he was arrested a short time later by the FBI in New Jersey. US investigators say they found a letter to Pugh's Egyptian wife on his computer declaring his intention to defend the Islamic State, and saying he had only two options: "Victory or Martyr." Prosecutors also claim to have discovered approximately 180 jihadist videos on Pugh's laptop, including one that showed Islamic State militants executing several prisoners.

Court records later revealed that Pugh has been on the radar of authorities for 15 years. According to court documents, he served as an avionics specialist in the US Air Force from 1986 to 1990 and moved to San Antonio around 1998, when he converted to Islam and developed an interest in Islamic terrorist groups. In 2001, while Pugh was working as a mechanic for American Airlines, a co-worker tipped off the FBI that Pugh had expressed support for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Then in 2002, an associate of Pugh's told the FBI that Pugh expressed interest in traveling to Chechnya to participate in the Islamist insurgency against the Russian military there. It's unclear why the federal government didn't move against Pugh at the time. But nearly eight years later Pugh found work as an army contractor. From 2009-2010 he worked on aircraft avionics as an Army contractor for DynCorp International in Iraq.


At the time of Pugh's initial indictment, in March, 2015 Attorney General Loretta Lynch was serving as US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, where she helped spearhead the investigation. "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," she said at the time.

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Pugh's defense lawyers argued that his only offense was to express "repugnant" views about Islamic State in Facebook posts and to watch dozens of the group's slickly produced recruitment videos. They said he traveled to Turkey to find work, not to become a jihadist.

But prosecutors pointed to the letter he drafted to his Egyptian wife in which he wrote his "Victory or Martyr" vow. The letter was written days before he flew to Turkey, though it was unclear whether he ever sent it.

He also took with him to Istanbul a black facemask, a map depicting Islamic State's strongholds in Syria and a chart of the border crossings between Turkey and Syria.

Though the Department of Justice has brought around 75 Islamic State prosecutions against US citizens, Pugh's is just one of two cases that actually went to trial.  Abdul Malik Abdul Kareem is also on trial in Phoenix, where he stand accused of plotting with others to attack a Prophet Mohammed cartoon contest in Texas. Two of his alleged associates were killed in a shootout with police at the event.

Though the jury found Pugh guilty on Wednesday, his fate is still not certain — he will receive his final  sentenced in September.