Air Force Vet Sentenced to 35 Years for Attempting to Join ISIS

by ABHA SHANKAR June 2, 2017

A former member of the U.S. Air Force was sentenced to 35 years in prison for trying to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh was an Air Force avionics instrument system specialist from 1986-1990 and worked as an airplane mechanic for companies in the U.S. and the Middle East.

U.S. District Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis reportedly applauded Pugh's military service while meting out the long sentence, but noted it was "a long time ago" and that Pugh's decision to join ISIS is "a very sad thing."

Court records trace Pugh's radicalization to 2013, when he was working with Kalitta Air, an air transportation company in Dubai. A co-worker saw Pugh watching jihadi content online, including images accompanied by messages such as, "If fighting for my religious freedom makes me a terrorist, I am a terrorist."

In late 2014, he made several comments supporting ISIS to his co-workers while working with a charter airline company in Kuwait City. He told a co-worker about an ISIS advertisement "looking for pilots and mechanics, and they are paying big salaries."

Computer records show Pugh started extensively viewing and downloading ISIS propaganda videos in late 2014 and early 2015, searching for ways to travel to Syria to join ISIS. A search of Pugh's laptop revealed searches for "borders controlled by Islamic state," ISIS propaganda videos such as "Flames of War" and "Virtues of Seeking Martyrdom" and execution videos.

An execution video showed ISIS executioner "Jihadi John" holding up the severed head of American aid worker Peter Kassig and rebuking then-President Obama for refusing to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. "The spark has been lit here in Iraq and its heat will continue to intensify by Allah's permission until it burns the Crusader army," al-Qaida in Iraq leader Sheikh Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi said in the video.

"That the defendant saved this video, among many others, establishes his knowledge that [ISIS] committed acts calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation and coercion, and it retaliated against government conduct," prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo.

Pugh bought a one-way ticket from Cairo, Egypt to Istanbul, Turkey in January 2015. Around the same time, he drafted a letter to his Egyptian wife in which he called himself a "Mujahid" and said that he would "use the talents and skills given to me by Allah to establish and defend the Islamic State." "There are only 2 possible outcomes for me. Victory or Martyr," he added.

But he was denied entry in Istanbul and returned to Egypt where he was detained and eventually deported to the United States.

Pugh's "military service is admirable," prosecutors wrote, but "his decision to turn his back on his country to support a terrorist organization committed to the destruction of the United States and all it stands for represents a particularly stark betrayal in light of his prior military service and the training, support, and opportunities he received through his affiliation with the U.S. Air Force."

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Abha Shankar writes for The Investigative Project on Terrorism  


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