A federal prosecutor told jurors Air Force veteran Tairod Pugh “turned his back on” his country and “wanted to die” for the Islamic State terror group as one of the first trials of an accused ISIS wannabe got underway Monday in federal court in Brooklyn.
“The defendant wanted to offer himself to ISIS,” prosecutor Mark Bini said in opening arguments on charges that Pugh, 48, an airplane mechanic, traveled to Turkey to try to join ISIS and then destroyed flash drives with evidence of his plans when he realized he was under scrutiny.
Pugh’s lawyer told jurors the government was prosecuting Pugh because of his sympathy for radical Islam, not because of any concrete evidence that he had made arrangements to join the Islamic State group.
“In this country we don’t punish a person for his thoughts,” defense lawyer Eric Creizman said. “In this country we don’t stifle the exploration of ideas. And in this country we don’t deprive a person of his liberty . . . based on speculation about what he might do.”
Pugh left the Air Force in 1990, but continued to work as an avionics mechanic for American Airlines and others. He converted to Islam, and was working in Dubai for an air cargo company just before authorities said he tried to join the terror group.
He initially was detained by authorities in Turkey in January 2015, on his way to Syria after buying a one-way ticket from Egypt, authorities say. He was returned to Egypt and from there deported back to the United States, where he was arrested.
Prosecutors hope to show his plans for joining the Islamic State through a draft letter to his wife found on his laptop computer in which he says he has decided to fight to defend Islam and may become a martyr to the cause.
The government also found more than 100 jihadist videos on his laptop, and said that after returning to the United States he confided in an undercover agent, who will appear as a witness in a closed courtroom, that he had gone to Turkey to join the Islamic State.
But Creizman noted in his opening statement that there was no evidence that Pugh had made any contact with the terror group or any arrangements to get to the Syrian border, and that his belongings included a resume — consistent with Pugh’s claim that he went to Turkey to look for a job.
“You would have to believe he thought he was going to walk up to an ISIS border guard, show him his resume, and get in,” Creizman said.
Pugh is charged with attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State group in the form of his own services and with obstruction of justice for destroying the flash drives.