The federal case against an Air Force veteran accused of trying to join the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) is a “fantasy,” the defendant’s attorney argues during trial.
In March 2015, a federal grand jury in the Brooklyn-based U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York returned a two-count indictment charging Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh, 48, a U.S. citizen, with attempting to provide material support to ISIS and obstruction and attempted obstruction of justice.
Pugh’s trial began Monday, marking the start of one of the nation’s first involving an American citizen charged with trying to join ISIS. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has said it has brought more than 70 similar cases across the country.
“The case is fantasy,” Eric Creizman, the defendant’s lawyer, told the jurors Monday, urging them to “protect him as a citizen under our Constitution,” the Associated Press (AP) reports.
“In this country, you don’t punish a person for his thoughts,” he added.
Pugh flew to Turkey in January with the intent to travel to Syria and join the jihadist group, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Bini told the anonymous jury.
“The defendant turned [his] back on the country he once pledged to serve,” added the prosecutor, noting that Pugh served in the Air Force from 1986 to 1990.
Bini declared that the defendant destroyed evidence — four computer flash drives — when he realized he was being monitored by law enforcement.
He also said there was plenty of proof of Pugh’s plans, including Facebook posts defending ISIS, numerous downloaded videos and literature about the group, and a letter he wrote to his wife, saying in part: “There is only two possible outcomes for me: victory or martyr.”
Creizman stressed his client’s innocence, adding that he traveled to Syria to look for employment after losing his U.S.-based job in December as an aviation mechanic.
“He felt humiliated,” Creizman said. “He felt moving to the Middle East would improve his life.”
When he went to Turkey, Pugh allegedly took his résumé, letters of recommendation, and his Air Force records with him. Those items, his lawyer reportedly argued, “would not endear him to ISIS if he tried to go to the Syrian border.”
Creizman emphasized that it would be a fatal move, and therefore, “not reasonable” for his client to travel to territory controlled by ISIS.
The lawyer said Pugh was “deeply and personally opposed to violence against civilians” and believed the media had misinformed people, leading them to believe terrorist acts, including the September 11 attacks on the U.S. homeland, were carried out by al-Qaeda or ISIS.
Creizman warned the jurors about the trial evidence, noting that some of the videos are “revolting” and that “the opinions he expresses are offensive.” However, he added, ”None of this is illegal.”
The criminal complaint, indictment, and other court filings revealed that Pugh attempted to join ISIS in early 2015 after he was fired from a job as a Middle East-based airplane mechanic.
While serving as an avionics instrument system specialist in the Air Force, the defendant received training in the installation and maintenance of aircraft engine, navigation, and weapons system.
“On January 10, 2015, the defendant traveled from Egypt to Turkey in an effort to cross the border into Syria to join ISIL and fight violent jihad. Turkish authorities denied the defendant entry, however, and sent him on a return flight to Egypt,” explained the DOJ in a statement issued last March.
Pugh was deported to the United States from Egypt. The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) obtained a search warrant for the defendant’s electronic devices on January 14 and found various ISIS-related searches on his laptop, as well as a chart of border crossings between Turkey and Syria — showing areas controlled by the jihadist group.
Two days later, Pugh was arrested in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and has been held in custody ever since. He is facing a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison.
Turkey is often used as a transit country for foreigners seeking to engage in jihad on behalf of ISIS in Syria. U.S.-based homegrown violent extremists (HVEs) are described as the top terrorist threat to America in the latest Worldwide Threat Assessment compiled by the intelligence community.