A former Air Force mechanic convicted of trying to join the Islamic State was sentenced to a maximum 35-year prison term in Brooklyn federal court Wednesday after a long diatribe blaming his conviction on being black and Muslim drew the patriotic wrath of the judge.
“This isn’t about whether you’re Muslim, Christian or Jewish,” U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis told Tairod Pugh, 49. “This is about whether you’re going to stand up for your country or betray your country which has done so much for you. . . . I have no sympathy.”
Garaufis also blasted Pugh’s repeated references to his military service with one parting shot after telling him he’d be in prison for the next 420 months.
“The work of the Islamic State is to destroy our way of life,” Garaufis said. “I can’t imagine someone who served in the U.S. military . . . would want for a single instant to consider crossing the border into Syria to destroy what we have built over the last 240 years. It’s a very sad thing you have done.”
Pugh, of Neptune, New Jersey, was convicted last year of attempting to give material support to a terror group and obstructing justice after traveling to Istanbul with an alleged plan to join the Islamic State, or ISIS, and trying to destroy incriminating evidence on his laptop and thumb drives when he was stopped at the airport.
Before trial, the government offered a plea that would have carried a maximum of 15 years in prison, but Pugh became the first alleged Islamic State recruit to take his case to trial with a defense that he never had the intent to join. Prosecutors did not request the maximum, asking for a sentence from 30 to 35 years.
Pugh served as an avionics specialist from 1986 to 1990, and then worked on both military and private planes for civilian contractors from 1995 to 2015, both in the United States and the Mideast. Although his laptop had jihadist videos and Facebook posts supporting the Islamic State, there was no evidence he ever tried to contact the terror groups, and he never sent a letter to his wife that said he was joining.
Defense lawyer Susan Kellman said Pugh was a troubled man” diagnosed with mental problems who never clearly signaled an intent to join the Islamic State, but was convicted of “thinking out loud” about how a Muslim convert should fit into the world. She urged a sentence under 15 years.
“This is a very confused individual,” she said to Garaufis. “It’s hard to know what was in his head that day. . . It’s impossible to separate Mr. Pugh’s intentions here from his mental illness.”
Pugh, during a tearful rant that lasted more than 30 minutes before the judge cut him off, took a different tack. He said that in fact he had gone to Istanbul to fight for the United States against Syrian forces of President Bashar al-Assad and should have been given the benefit of the doubt based on his military background.
He blamed his treatment on race and religion. “This country owes me a debt of gratitude, not scorn and not incarceration,” he said. “ . . . I am fearless, determined, unapologetic and angry about how America turned its back on me.”
But Garaufis said military service and mental problems went only so far.
“A line needs to be drawn,” he said. “The fact that the defendant has issues . . . does not give him the right to attempt to join a foreign terrorist organization that has sworn . . . to create a caliphate that will control the Earth.”
Pugh intends to appeal his conviction.