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Tairod Pugh, Ex-U.S. Serviceman, Is Found Guilty of Trying to Aid ISIS

A federal jury on Wednesday found a former United States serviceman guilty of trying to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State, the first such case involving the terrorist group to reach a verdict in a United States courtroom.

The former serviceman, Tairod Pugh, 48, hung his head momentarily after the jury foreman in Federal District Court in Brooklyn announced the guilty verdict on the top charge, trying to support a foreign terrorist organization.

Mr. Pugh is among dozens of people arrested by the authorities over the past two years on charges that they tried to travel to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State or had plotted attacks on behalf of the organization in America. Another man accused of conspiring to support the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is now on trial in Phoenix.

Mr. Pugh, a skilled airplane mechanic from his time in the Air Force about 25 years ago, had been drifting across the Middle East in the year before his arrest in January 2015, finding work at small American airlines that flew in and out of far-flung military bases on Pentagon contracts.

Evidence presented at the trial, which began on Feb. 29, showed that Mr. Pugh had researched border crossings to Syria before boarding a flight to Istanbul, a common jumping-off point for would-be foreign fighters seeking to make their way to Islamic State-controlled territory. But much was left unsaid about how Mr. Pugh, a convert to Islam, had originally fallen under the sway of extremist ideology. By 2014, however, he was watching slickly produced Islamic State propaganda and defending the group on Facebook and in conversations with co-workers.

Shortly before his arrest, Mr. Pugh had even drafted a letter to his wife in Egypt, promising to bring her along to paradise after he died a martyr. In the letter, he pledged to "use the talents and skills given to me by Allah to establish and defend the Islamic State." But he did not appear to have actually sent the letter, giving his lawyers an opening to argue that though Mr. Pugh was an ardent ideological supporter of the Islamic State, any thoughts he harbored of joining the group were fantasies.

The jury rejected that defense, convicting Mr. Pugh of crimes that carry a potential 35-year sentence. In addition to the terrorism-related charge, he was also found guilty of obstruction of an official proceeding, for destroying several flash drives that the government claimed contained evidence against him.

After the conviction, Robert Capers, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a statement that Mr. Pugh "has now been held accountable for his crimes by a jury and will not reach the terrorist group he sought to support."

Some aspects of Mr. Pugh's case remain a mystery. When he landed in Istanbul in January 2015, the Turkish authorities quickly detained him before ultimately deporting him, through Cairo, to Kennedy International Airport, where the Federal Bureau of Investigation was waiting for him. It was unclear whether the Turkish authorities had grown suspicious of Mr. Pugh on their own, or had been alerted to his possible intentions by the United States government.

It also emerged at trial that Mr. Pugh, a solitary figure drifting between jobs in places like Kuwait and Dubai, had cultivated a network of like-minded strangers on Facebook, including a Queens woman, Noelle Velentzas, who was mentioned in passing at the trial. Three months after Mr. Pugh was arrested, Ms. Velentzas was arrested in Queens on charges related to plotting a terror attack.

Mr. Pugh did not testify and showed little emotion during the trial. After the verdict was read, he peered briefly past a row of reporters into the audience, to where his father and aunt sat, then quickly turned away.

Mr. Pugh's father, Horace Pugh, said the entire case had been a shock to him, from the moment his son was arrested. "I love him; he's my son," he told a group of reporters trailing him as he left the courthouse.

Mr. Pugh's lawyers, Eric Creizman and Zachary Taylor, said that Mr. Pugh had demanded a trial from the start, insisting on his innocence. The lawyers said they intended to appeal the verdict on a number of grounds. In particular, they noted that the judge, Nicholas G. Garaufis, had allowed the jury to see the draft letter Mr. Pugh had addressed to his wife, as well as Facebook exchanges between them. Those communications, Mr. Taylor said, should have been excluded as privileged marital communications.

[Source: By Joseph Goldstein, The New York Times, 09Mar16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 15Mar16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.