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U.S. Air Force veteran accused of trying to join Islamic State

In this March 30, 2014, file photo, Islamic State group militants hold up their flag as they patrol in a commandeered Iraqi military vehicle in Fallujah, Iraq. (Associated Press)

A U.S. Air Force veteran attempted to travel to Syria and fight with the Islamic State earlier this year, federal authorities said Tuesday, the latest case in which an American allegedly sought to join the Islamist militant group.

Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh, 47, was charged with attempting to provide material support and resources to a terrorist organization, according to an indictment filed in U.S. District Court in New York. He was also accused of obstruction of an official proceeding. Authorities said he destroyed four thumb drives with files and photos so they could not be used in a grand jury investigation.

U.S. officials have said that about 130 Americans have traveled to Syria or tried to do so since the start of the war in that country. Pugh appears to be the first U.S. military veteran known publicly to have traveled to the region to allegedly try to join the Islamic State. The FBI has aggressively targeted those seeking to support or join militants in Syria. Since 2014, the Justice Department has charged about two dozen people.

“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 Loretta E. Lynch, the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York and President Obama’s nominee as attorney general. “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.”

A lawyer for Pugh, Michael Schneider, said Tuesday that the veteran will plead not guilty in court Wednesday. He declined further comment.

Pugh served in the Air Force from October 1986 until October 1990, leaving as an airman first class, said Capt. Brooke L. Brzozowske, an Air Force spokeswoman. He was an avionics guidance and control systems specialist, and he served stints with the 23rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona and the 581st Aircraft Generation Squadron at Woodbridge Air Base in Britain.

Pugh traveled from Egypt to Turkey in an attempt to reach Syria after being fired from his last job as an airplane mechanic based in the Middle East, according to the court documents. He allegedly reached Turkey on Jan. 10, but Turkish officials denied him entry and sent him back to Egypt. Authorities there found him with the damaged thumb drives and an iPod device that had been wiped clean of data. He was deported afterward to the United States.

Investigators with the New York Police Department Joint Terrorist Task Force found that Pugh had searched a number of terms that raised additional concerns, including “borders controlled by Islamic state,” “who controls kobani,” “kobani border crossing,” and “jarablus border crossing,” all references to Syrian cities near the Turkish border, authorities said.

Pugh had a chart on his laptop computer that included crossing points between Turkey and Syria and showed the areas on the Syrian side of the border controlled by the Islamic State and other groups, federal officials said. He also had downloaded militant propaganda videos, authorities allege.

A LinkedIn page registered to a man named Tairod Pugh said he worked for Gryphon Airlines in Kuwait as a maintenance manager since September 2014. It also said he had experience in the Air Force.

A Gryphon spokeswoman, Linda Shammari, released a statement Tuesday saying the company was aware of the reports.

“In third quarter 2014, Mr. Pugh was under consideration for a future Gryphon project, but did not meet the qualifications,” the statement said. “Gryphon declined to hire Mr. Pugh. Gryphon personnel are cooperating with the authorities. Due to the ongoing investigation, Gryphon declines further comment.”

Gryphon has headquarters in Kuwait, with an office in Washington. It runs charter flights throughout the Middle East and North Africa and to and from the United States and Afghanistan, according to its Web site.

Julie Tate and Adam Goldman contributed to this report.

This post has been updated with additional information.