A U.S. Air Force veteran and former airplane mechanic from New Jersey charged with attempting to join the Islamic State group in Syria pleaded not guilty Wednesday to terrorism charges.
A bearded Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh, wearing prison-issued khaki pants and a blue short-sleeved shirt, repeated his full name when asked but said nothing else before Judge Nicholas Garaufis in a New York federal courthouse. His attorney, Michael K. Schneider, entered the plea on his behalf. He declined to address reporters after the brief court appearance.
Pugh, 47, of Neptune, was indicted Tuesday on charges of attempting to provide material support to a terrorist group and obstructing justice.
He was stopped at a Turkish airport in January carrying a laptop containing information on Turkey-Syria border crossing points as well as 180 jihadist propaganda videos, including one featuring an Islamic State prisoner beheading, according to an indictment.
In a letter addressed to a woman investigators believe is Pugh's Egyptian wife, Pugh declared: "I will use the talents and skills given to me by Allah to establish and defend the Islamic States," according to court papers.
"There is only two possible outcomes for me," said the letter, which was recovered from his computer. "Victory or martyr."
The computer, as well as thumb drive data-storage devices and other recovered equipment, appeared to have been intentionally destroyed to deny investigators access, the indictment said.
Garaufis scheduled a May 8 status conference to review prosecutors' evidence and discuss any possible plea negotiations. Schneider said in court he would need time for his own forensic expert to review the data seized by federal authorities and to coordinate interviews with potential witnesses in Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere.
Pugh has been living overseas for the past year and a half, most recently in Egypt, the court papers show.
Pugh served in the Air Force from 1986 to 1990 and was trained in installing and maintaining aircraft engines and navigation and weapons systems. The airman first class was first assigned in July 1987 to the Woodbridge Air Base in England and then to the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona in July 1989, the Air Force said. After leaving the air force, he worked as an avionics specialist and mechanic for companies in the Middle East and U.S.
The FBI got a 2001 tip about Pugh from a co-worker at American Airlines who said Pugh expressed sympathy for Osama bin Laden, according to court papers. The airline said he left in early 2000 after a few months at American. In 2002, an associate of Pugh's again told the FBI that Pugh was interested in traveling to Chechnya to wage war, the indictment said.
Pugh was stopped by Turkish authorities on Jan. 10, and returned to the U.S. five days later by way of Egypt. He told investigators he was in Turkey on vacation and to look for a job and had no intention of crossing into Syria, the indictment said.