A US Air Force veteran was sentenced to 35 years in prison on Wednesday after being convicted on terrorism charges for trying to join ISIS.
Tairod Pugh, 49, was convicted in March of 2016 of attempting to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State group and die a martyr.
In a Brooklyn Federal Court, US District Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis referred to it as a ‘very sad thing’ a onetime airman would want to join a group seeking to destroy the country he previously defended.
The conviction was the first verdict from more than 70 cases the government brought against Americans accused of trying to support the militant group.
‘This isn’t about whether you’re a Muslim or a Christian or Jewish,’ Garaufis told Pugh, who is American and from Neptune, New Jersey. ‘This is about whether you’re going to stand up for your country.’
‘I cannot imagine someone who served in the United States military, arm in arm with patriotic Americans, crossing the border to destroy what we have built in this country for the past 240 years,’ Garaufis said.
‘It’s a very sad thing you have done. You can stand up for your country or you can betray it. You made your choice, sir. I have no sympathy,’ the judge said.
Prosecutors said Pugh traveled from Egypt to Turkey on January 10, 2015, in an effort to cross the border into Syria to join ISIS and engage in violent ‘jihad’.
There, he was stopped by Turkish border authorities carrying a laptop with information on Turkey-Syria border crossing points, 180 jihadist propaganda videos, including footage of an Islamic State prisoner beheading, and a letter declaring: ‘I will use the talents and skills given to me by Allah to establish and defend the Islamic States.’
At trial, prosecutors showed jurors materials found on Pugh’s computer and cited a letter Pugh wrote to his wife saying, in part, ‘There is only two possible outcomes for me: Victory or martyr.’
Prosecutors said he sought a route into Syria to join the Islamic State group, but authorities forced him to turn back. He was arrested soon after his return to New York.
When searched, his computer contained searches for ‘borders controlled by Islamic State,’ the ISIS propaganda video ‘Flames of War,’ and terrorist videos he had downloaded – such as ISIS execution footage.
Pugh was in the Air Force from 1986 to 1990, when he was trained to install and maintain aircraft engines and navigation and weapons systems.
He gave a rambling statement Wednesday, interrupted when he started to cry and when the judge cut him off, saying, ‘I can’t listen to this whole thing. I just can’t… I’m not the psychiatrist. I’m the judge, and I’m limited in what I can do.’
Before Pugh was interrupted, he was defiant.
‘I am innocent,’ he said.
During closing arguments, defense attorney Eric Creizman said Pugh had no ill intent in Turkey a month after losing his job as an aviation mechanic and telling his supervisor to stop ‘talking to me like I’m an idiot.’ He said Pugh had hoped to move to the Middle East with his wife.
He said his client was feeling small and inconsequential when he started researching the rise of the Islamic State group in the summer of 2014, impressed that Muslims somewhere were trying to establish a country and wouldn’t ‘back down from anything.’