NEW YORK (AP) — A U.S. Air Force veteran and former airplane mechanic charged with trying to join the Islamic State will be among the first Americans to go on trial as a result of the U.S. government's pursuit of dozens of suspected sympathizers of the militant group.
Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh, 48, was stopped at a Turkish airport in January 2015. He told investigators he was just on a vacation, but an indictment alleged that he was carrying 180 jihadist propaganda videos, including one featuring the beheading of an Islamic State prisoner. Later, prosecutors said they found a letter on his computer in which he told his wife he wanted to join the Islamic State.
Jury selection in Pugh's trial at a federal court in New York City is scheduled to begin in earnest this week. Pugh has pleaded not guilty to charges that he tried to provide material support to a terrorist group and obstructed justice.
The Justice Department said it has pressed criminal charges against more than 70 Islamic State sympathizers, though some published reports have put that figure higher.
Karen J. Greenberg, director of the Fordham Law School's Center on National Security, which tracks terrorism cases, said the U.S. government has charged 78 people in connection with the group. Of those, two dozen have pleaded guilty.
Opening statements began last week in Phoenix in the trial Abdul Malik Abdul Kareem, a moving company owner charged with plotting to attack a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas.
Authorities said two of Kareem's associates were killed when they brought semiautomatic rifles, bulletproof vests and an Islamic State flag to the event. Kareem's lawyer, blaming the government's "overactive imagination," told jurors Kareem had no knowledge the attack was to occur.
Other cases are moving closer to trial, including in Minneapolis, where several members of Minnesota's Somali community are scheduled for trial in May on charges that they plotted to join Islamic State fighters.
Another trial scheduled for this month has been put off after charges were upgraded against a North Carolina 19-year-old accused of killing a neighbor and stealing his money so he could buy an assault rifle to carry out an Islamic State-inspired shooting at a concert or club. Authorities said the Morganton man thought he could kill as many as 1,000 people.
Pugh served in the Air Force from 1986 to 1990 after being trained to install and maintain aircraft engines and navigation and weapons systems. The airman first class worked in July 1987 at the Woodbridge Air Base in England before moving to the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona in July 1989. After leaving the military, he worked as an avionics specialist and mechanic for companies in the Middle East and U.S.
According to court papers, the FBI was tipped in 2001 that Pugh had expressed sympathy for Osama bin Laden. 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.
Part of the case against Pugh has focused on a letter prosecutors said he wrote to his wife, an Egyptian citizen who speaks and reads Egyptian Arabic. The two met and married in the spring of 2014, even though they didn't speak the other's language. To communicate, they rely on Internet translation services or multilingual friends or relatives.
According to court papers, Pugh declared in his letter to his wife: "I will use the talents and skills given to me by Allah to establish and defend the Islamic States."
Court papers said Pugh also said in the letter: "There is only two possible outcomes for me: Victory or martyr."
A week ago, U.S. District Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis ruled that the letter could be shown to jurors along with some Islamic State propaganda videos.