A former United States Air Force mechanic from Neptune, New Jersey, who recently lost his job was arrested by the FBI after he allegedly tried to travel overseas to join ISIS, law enforcement officials said Tuesday.
The mechanic, an American citizen identified in court papers as Tairod Pugh, was sent to New York to face terror-related charges after traveling from Egypt to Turkey in an effort to cross the border into Syria to "fight violent jihad," according to a criminal complaint.
According to court documents, Pugh tried to join ISIS not long after being fired from his last job as an airplane mechanic based in Kuwait in December. Court documents say he bought a plane ticket from Cairo to Istanbul in early January, and flew to Turkey Jan. 10.
Turkish officials did not let him cross the border and sent him back to Egypt. Once Pugh arrived in Egypt, he was found with a laptop, four USB thumb drives that had been stripped of their plastic casings and an iPod that had been wiped clean, authorities said. Officials also found a photograph of a machine gun in his cellphone, among other images. Pugh was sent back to the U.S. at that point.
Four days after Pugh allegedly tried to travel to Turkey en route to Syria, Joint Terrorism Task Force agents got a search warrant for his electronics and found recent Internet searches for "borders controlled by Islamic state," a chart of crossing points between Turkey and Syria indicating the parts controlled by ISIS and Internet searches for "Flames of War," an ISIS propaganda video, as well as at least one video showing ISIS members line up prisoners and shoot them in the heads.
Pugh was arrested on federal charges of attempting to provide material support for terror and obstruction on Jan. 16 in Asbury Park and has been in custody since then.
Federal public defender Michael Schneider says he will plead not guilty during an appearance in federal court in Brooklyn Wednesday.
Pugh served in the U.S. Air Force for about four years in the 1980s as an avionics instrument system specialist; he received training in the installation and maintenance of aircraft engine, navigation and weapons systems, according to court documents. After leaving the military, he worked for several companies in the U.S. and Middle East as an avionics specialist and airplane mechanic. He lived abroad for at least the year leading up to his arrest and spent much of the past five years overseas.
After his arrest, authorities obtained search warrants for two backpacks Pugh had when he was overseas and found shards of broken USB thumb drivers, a fatigue jacket, camping clothes, two compasses and a solar-powered power source, among other items. The items are "consistent with the items one would bring to a remote location lacking electrical infrastructure, such as war-torn Syria," according to a criminal complaint.
Pugh has family, including children, in the United States, according to the criminal complaint, though the number of children and their ages aren't known. According to the complaint, he identified a woman in Egypt as his wife. His Facebook page shows him next to an unidentified woman; the ISIS flag is set as the background photo, according to law enforcement officials who confirmed the page.
“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,” said U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said in a statement. “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."
The arrest comes less than a month after three men Brooklyn men were rounded up in an FBI raid for allegedly plotting to travel to Syria to join ISIS. The men, 24- and 30-year-old Uzbekistan citizens and a 19-year-old Kazakhstan citizen who all lived in Brooklyn, allegedly planned to commit a domestic act of terror if they failed to join the group overseas, law enforcement officials said.
They have pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to a terror group.