The story of Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh is disturbing, but not entirely unique, as a report from NJ.com notes. A federal indictment charges that the New Jersey man–a born-and-bred American who served four years in the Air Force–began following the Islamic State online and decided to join the jihad by arranging a “vacation” to Turkey, with an eye toward slipping across the border into Syria.
The grand jury indictment, unsealed on Tuesday, charges him with “attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and obstruction and attempted obstruction of justice.”
NJ.com compares Pugh’s story with cases of other black Muslims from New Jersey looking to join Somalian terror gangs linked to al-Qaeda, but there are a few significant differences that make this case particularly troubling. Pugh is much older, for one thing; the others were in their twenties, but at 47, he defies the standard narrative of a highly impressionable young man led astray by jihadi recruiters while barely out of high school or college. He is also not a “recent Muslim convert,” as media coverage of “lone-wolf jihadis” usually asserts; he converted to Islam in 1998.
Pugh had skills that would have been extremely useful to the Islamic State. He was working as an aircraft mechanic in Kuwait until losing his job a few weeks ago, an event that might have helped him make up his mind about joining the jihad. He was an avionics instrument system specialist in the Air Force from 1986 to 1990, with experience at servicing both flight and weapons systems. He was tech-savvy enough to rig his personal electronics to frustrate efforts to investigate his online activities.
Apparently, Pugh’s precautions against electronic investigation didn’t work because the authorities were able to retrieve quite a bit of information from the laptop he was carrying. They allege that he had been scoping out the borders of the Islamic State for good points of entry, watching ISIS propaganda videos, and composing a letter to his wife in Egypt, in which he declared, “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 States. I will send for you when it is safe.”
CBS News adds the cheery detail that he told his wife that “there is only two possible outcomes for me: victory or martyr.” CNN says his collection of ISIS snuff films and propaganda videos filled 180 files on his computer. Reportedly, recovered from his cell phone were photos of a machine gun, the toilet stall of an airplane, and the baggage space under airplane seats.
He had been on the counter-terrorist radar for quite a while:
The FBI had investigated Pugh in the past. In its affidavit, the bureau said it received a tip from a former co-worker at American Airlines that Pugh expressed sympathy for Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks. Interviews with others who knew Pugh told the FBI he had expressed interest in traveling to Chechnya “to fight jihad.”
Heavy.com has a choice excerpt from Pugh’s now-deleted Facebook page, dated from last July:
We had just finished the fasting of Ramadan. During that time the Shatans were locked up. All the evil done by man during this time was from the evil within ourselves. All the evil done by the Jews came from within themselves. On the day of Judgement full responsibility of the starving, torture, jailing and killing of innocent Muslims will rest upon there [sic] shoulders.
Allah must really hate them to give them the rope to hang themselves. They have collectively starved, tortured and killed a thousand innocent people. They had wounded thousands of people. They have destroyed the homes of thousands Muslims all during the month of Ramadan.
Dear Israelis you will burn in hell soooo long, soooo very long that those whom you have hurt will have forgotten you.
Take the time and try to imagine that. You will burn in a black flame for millions and millions and trillions of years.
You will be forgotten and guess what? You will have no hope of getting out. You have deprived the Palestinians of water, your thirst will never be satisfied, you have deprived them of food, you will forever be hungry, you have deprived them of life Allah will deprive you the comfort of death. “I feel better already.”
When Turkish officials halted his alleged journey to Syria, and they sent him back to Egypt for ultimate deportation to the United States, Pugh reportedly said he would rather be sent anywhere else because “the U.S. doesn’t like black Muslims.” ABC News reports he was carrying the kind of gear ISIS advises its recruits to pack, including “two compasses, a solar-powered flashlight, a solar-powered power source, a fatigue jacket and camping clothes.” After he was shipped back to New York, he shot the breeze with a government agent about some precautions he should have taken to avoid getting pinched by the Turks as a would-be jihadi, such as shaving off his beard.
In sum, there appears to be plenty of evidence for the charges against him, although he pleaded “not guilty” Wednesday. Actually, his lawyer entered the plea for him; Pugh said nothing to the judge, aside from repeating his full name when instructed to do so.