By Nate Raymond
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Jury selection began on Tuesday in the case of a U.S. Air Force veteran accused of trying to travel to Syria to join Islamic State, the first person to face a U.S. trial for attempting to support the militant group.
Questionnaires were distributed to the first batch of 500 potential jurors in Brooklyn, New York, in the federal trial of Tairod Pugh, a 48-year-old New Jersey resident charged with attempting to provide material support to Islamic State.
Pugh, who wore a blue collared shirt in court, is one of 80 people charged in federal cases related to Islamic State since 2014 as authorities push to identify potential domestic supporters of the group, according to a Reuters analysis.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has said it has probes in all 50 states involving suspected supporters of Islamic State, which has seized control of wide swaths of Iraq and Syria.
Prosecutors said Pugh, who served with the Air Force from 1986 to 1990 and recently worked as a commercial airplane mechanic in Kuwait, bought a one-way ticket from Cairo to Istanbul in January 2015.
His goal was to cross the border into Syria to join Islamic State, they alleged.
But Turkish authorities sent him back to Cairo, where officials found he had several damaged electronic devices including a cell phone with a photograph of a machine gun, prosecutors said.
Pugh was deported to the United States, where he told an undercover agent that he went to Turkey to join Islamic State, prosecutors said.
They said Pugh's laptop computer contained propaganda videos and a draft letter written to a woman he married in Egypt pledging to use his skills "to establish and defend the Islamic State."
Pugh's lawyer, Eric Creizman, has sought to block the letter's introduction, calling it a privileged marital communication.
Pugh has pleaded not guilty and contends he went to Turkey to find work.
He previously came to authorities' attention in 2001, when a co-worker told the FBI that Pugh "sympathized with Osama bin Laden, felt that the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies were justified and expressed anti-American sentiment," court papers said.
In 2002, an associate told the FBI that Pugh had expressed interest in going to Chechnya to fight, prosecutors said.
Nevertheless, Pugh went on to work in Iraq as an Army contractor with DynCorp International [VETASD.UL], prosecutors said, and later as an airplane mechanic in the Middle East.
(Additional reporting by Julia Edwards and Julia Harte in Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler and Matthew Lewis)