NEW YORK — A U.S. Air Force veteran who was recently fired from his job as an airplane mechanic plotted to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State group and was arrested on terrorism charges, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.
Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh, of Neptune, New Jersey, was indicted Monday on charges of attempting to provide material support to a terrorist group and obstruction of justice. He was in custody and was expected to appear Wednesday in federal court in New York City.
“I will use the talents and skills given to me by Allah to establish and defend the Islamic States. There is only two possible outcomes for me. Victory or martyr,” Pugh wrote in a letter last month that investigators said they found on his laptop. They also found about 180 extremist propaganda videos, including Islamic State group footage of prisoners being executed, according to a court complaint.
Pugh’s lawyer, Michael K. Schneider, said Pugh would plead not guilty. Schneider declined to comment further.
The 47-year-old Pugh served in the Air Force as an avionics instrument system specialist from 1986 to 1990 and was trained in installing and maintaining aircraft engines and navigation and weapons systems, according to Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch’s office. An airman first class, he was assigned to the Woodbridge Air Base in England in July 1987 and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona in July 1989, the Air Force said.
Pugh converted to Islam around 1998, the complaint said.
After leaving the Air Force, he worked for a number of companies in the United States and Middle East as an avionics specialist and airplane mechanic — including American Airlines, where the FBI got a 2001 tip about him from a co-worker who said Pugh expressed sympathy for Osama bin Laden, according to the complaint. The airline had no immediate comment.
The next year, an associate of Pugh’s told the FBI that Pugh was interested in traveling to Chechnya to wage war, the complaint said.
Pugh has been living in Egypt, Dubai and Jordan for the past year and a half, investigators said. He told an acquaintance in a December email that he’d been fired from his most recent job, the complaint said.
Prosecutors said Pugh then decided to join the Islamic State group, traveling from Egypt to Turkey to ultimately cross the border into Syria. He was stopped at the Turkish border Jan. 10, turned away and returned to Egypt, where he was detained to be returned to the U.S.
Pugh told authorities he had gone to Turkey to look for a job and had no desire to go to Syria, the complaint said.
But investigators found a chart of crossing points between Turkey and Syria, plus information about whether the border checkpoints were staffed, on Pugh’s laptop, the complaint said. He was flown back to the U.S. on Jan. 15. Investigators said his cellphone also had photos of a machine gun and airplanes, including an airplane bathroom and an area under passenger seats.
The Department of Justice has charged roughly 20 people in the past year with planning to travel to the Middle East to fight alongside militants like the Islamic State group, which controls parts of Syria and Iraq. Federal officials have been concerned about Americans going overseas to train with these groups and returning with plots to carry out attacks at home.
“We will continue to vigorously prosecute extremists, whether based here or abroad, to stop them before they are able to threaten the United States and its allies,” U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said in a statement Tuesday.
Three men were arrested late last month in a plot to travel to Syria; they have pleaded not guilty.