A US Air Force veteran allegedly sympathetic to Osama bin Laden and who became a Muslim has been charged for trying to join Islamic State (IS) extremists in Syria, prosecutors said on Tuesday.
Tairod Pugh, 47, who had spent the last 18 months living in the Middle East and has an Egyptian wife, allegedly tried to travel to Syria in January, weeks after being sacked as an airplane mechanic.
It is the fourth arrest announced by Loretta Lynch, a US Attorney General nominee and the current US attorney for the eastern district of New York, over recent plots to join Islamic State extremists fighting in Syria.
Pugh was indicted with attempting to support a foreign terrorist organization for nine months from May last year to January, and with obstruction of justice over the tampering of electronic evidence.
He faces up to 35 years in prison if convicted and was yesterday scheduled to appear before federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis in Brooklyn.
Court papers show he cropped up on the US FBI’s radar as early as 2001 as an American Airlines employee purportedly sympathetic to the al-Qaeda mastermind responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Prosecution documents say 180 Muslim extremist videos were found on his laptop, including one showing Islamic State killers shooting a group of prisoners in the head one by one.
It also allegedly contained information on crossing points into Syria and a letter to his wife calling himself a mujahid — or holy warrior — who faced either victory or martyrdom.
US intelligence officials say more than 20,000 volunteers from around the world, including more than 150 US citizens, have gone to Syria to link up with extremists.
Pugh served in the US Air Force from 1986 to 1990 as an instrument specialist and was trained in aircraft engine, navigation and weapons systems maintenance.
In 1998, he moved to Texas, converted to Islam and “became increasingly radical in his beliefs,” according to the complaint.
By 2001 — the year that al-Qaeda hijacked US passenger jets — he was working as a mechanic for American Airlines.
That year, the FBI received a tip from a coworker alleging that Pugh was sympathetic to bin Laden and that he claimed the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings of US embassies in east Africa, which killed 224 people, were justified.
In 2002, “an associate” subsequently told the FBI that Pugh had wanted to travel to Chechnya to fight.
Court papers next put him in Iraq, where he worked for about six months in 2009 and 2010 on aircraft avionics for DynCorp, a private contractor to the US military.
From New Jersey, for the last year and a half before his arrest, he is believed to have been living in Egypt, Dubai and Jordan.
“Born and raised in the United States, Pugh allegedly turned his back on his country and attempted to travel to Syria in order to join a terrorist organization,” Lynch said.
“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,” Lynch said.
Prosecutors say Pugh was stopped by Turkish guards at an Istanbul airport after flying in from Egypt on Jan. 10, when he allegedly said he was a US Special Forces pilot on vacation.
Suspicious, they sent him back to Cairo, where he was detained, his laptop found damaged and inoperable, his iPod wiped clean of data and USB thumb drives also intentionally damaged.
He allegedly told Egyptian authorities that he would rather be deported anywhere in the Middle East, because “the US doesn’t like black Muslims” and when asked how he would pay for his flight home, said he would prefer to remain in Egyptian custody.
He was arrested on Jan. 16 in the US and indicted by a federal grand jury in Brooklyn on Monday.
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