A US Air Force veteran convicted for attempting to join ISIS was sentenced Wednesday to 35 years in prison.
Tairod Pugh, 49, from New Jersey, was found guilty in 2016 on federal charges of trying to give material support to ISIS and of obstruction of justice, according to the US Justice Department indictment.
"The defendant turned his back on his country, and the military he once served, to attempt to join a brutally violent terrorist organization committed to the slaughter of innocent people throughout the world," Acting United States Attorney Bridget Rohde said in a statement released on Wednesday.
Prosecutors had presented evidence that the former aircraft mechanic was traveling from Egypt to Turkey in January 2015. Investigators say Pugh was carrying a laptop computer and four USB drives that he had stripped of their plastic casings in an effort to destroy their contents and thereby make them unavailable to investigators. He was denied entry and Turkish authorities returned him to Egypt.
Foreign government officials quickly deported Pugh to the United States, where the FBI closely monitored him, relying in part on a covert undercover employee who encountered Pugh at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, according to the Justice Department.
Pugh was arrested on January 16, 2015, in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
Prosecutors also alleged that investigators discovered a letter on Pugh's desktop computer saying he wanted to "use the talents and skills given to me by Allah to establish and defend the Islamic States," and a chart of crossing points between Turkey and Syria, where ISIS controls some territory.
Crossing the Middle East
Pugh, a convert to Islam, served in the Air Force from 1986 to 1990, according to the Justice Department. Pugh traveled from Egypt to Turkey on January 10, 2015, in an effort to cross the border into Syria to join ISIS to engage in violent "jihad," according to the statement from the Justice Department.
In addition to the laptop computer, Pugh was also was carrying solar powered chargers, compasses, a black balaclava, and clothing suitable for war-torn Syria.
One piece of evidence was a letter Pugh wrote just before leaving for Turkey.
"I am a Mujahid. I am a sword against the oppressor and a shield for the oppressed. I will use the talents and skills given to me by Allah to establish and defend the Islamic State. There is only 2 possible outcomes for me. Victory or Martyr," Pugh wrote in the note, prosecutors say.
In Turkey, authorities were suspicious that Pugh was heading to Syria, denied him entry, and sent him on a return flight to Egypt, US officials say.
While detained in Egypt, authorities found that he was carrying "four USB thumb drives that had been stripped of their plastic casings and an iPod that had been wiped clean of data," the Justice Department said in a statement.
He was then deported to the United States, where the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force got a warrant for his devices, the Department said.
The FBI found the letter in which Pugh spoke of using his "talents and skills" to defend the Islamic State, as well as recent internet searches for ISIS propaganda videos.
Pugh was trained in installing and maintaining aircraft engines, and navigation and weapons systems, according to the Justice Department.
'Case good for the justice system'
Eric Creizman, Pugh's lawyer, said at the time of Pugh's conviction that he believed that there was reasonable doubt in the case.
"Our client maintained his innocence since day one, so we went to trial and put up the best fight we possibly could," Creizman said. "It was a well-tried case, an interesting case, because the whole thing was what they could glean from his state of mind from things he did, on the internet and on the computer."
"I think this case is good for the justice system. It's good for the world to see that in this country, you get a trial by jury," Creizman said. "In the Islamic State, people accused of crimes don't get such fair treatment."
In 2001, while working for American Airlines, one of Pugh's co-workers told the FBI that Pugh "sympathized with Osama bin Laden, felt that the 1998 bombings of US embassies overseas was justified and expressed anti-American sentiment," according to his criminal complaint.