A one-time Air Force mechanic whose radical beliefs had him on the FBI's radar since the late 1990s has been charged in federal court in Brooklyn with trying to join the Islamic State terror group, authorities revealed Tuesday.
Tairod Pugh, 47, of Neptune, New Jersey, allegedly did Internet searches for border crossings into Syria and downloaded execution videos by the jihadist group, before traveling from Egypt to Turkey in January to fight for the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
After being turned away, the government said, he wiped most of his electronic devices of evidence but kept a picture of a machine gun on his phone. Deported from Egypt to the United States, he was charged in a sealed complaint in January, and indicted this week.
"Pugh, an American citizen, was willing to travel overseas and fight jihad alongside terrorists seeking to do us harm," Diego Rodriguez, head of the FBI's New York office, said in a statement.
Pugh's attorney, Michael Schneider, said he would enter a not guilty at Pugh's arraignment in Brooklyn Wednesday. The case comes amid concern about ISIS recruiting in the west. In February, three Brooklyn men were accused of plotting to aid the terror group, including two who planned to join, authorities said.
Court papers said Pugh served in the Air Force as an avionics instrument system specialist from 1986 to 1990, and worked for American Airlines and a military contractor in Iraq. Overseas for the past 12 to 18 months, he allegedly lost his last job as a mechanic in Kuwait in December.
The government said Pugh converted to Islam in 1998. In 2001, a co-worker allegedly tipped the FBI that Pugh sympathized with Osama bin Laden and held anti-American views. In 2002, an associate said Pugh hoped to fight jihad in Chechnya. Pugh never admitted he was going to Syria to join ISIS, and told a federal agent that "he should have shaved his beard and changed into pants before trying to enter Turkey so as to avoid suspicion."
But the government said he objected to deportation from Egypt because the "U.S. doesn't like black Muslims." A search of his laptop revealed 180 jihadist videos and an email intended for his Egyptian wife, according to the criminal complaint.
"I am a Mujahid," said the email. ". . . There is only two possible outcomes for me. Victory or Martyr."
Prosecutors said a search of his backpacks found compasses, a solar-powered flashlight and camping clothes "consistent with the items one would bring to a remote location . . . such as war-torn Syria."
Pugh faces up to 35 years in prison on charges of attempting to provide material support to ISIS by joining, and obstructing justice by trying to scrub his digital devices.