U.S. Air Force veteran Tairod Pugh pleaded not guilty to trying to provide support for the Islamic State militant group. (Reuters)

Tairod Pugh had been out of the Air Force for about eight years when he converted to Islam in 1998. A specialist in aircraft avionics, he’d quietly served his country from 1986 to 1990, and then moved to San Antonio, Tex.

Over the next few years, Pugh became increasingly radical, according to a statement by an FBI agent that was filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn on Jan. 16 and unsealed Tuesday. In 2001, a tipster who worked with Pugh at American Airlines reported that Pugh said he sympathized with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and felt like the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were justified, the statement said.

Pugh, 47, pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to attempting to provide material support and resources to a terrorist organization and obstructing an official proceeding, one day after he became the first known U.S. military veteran to be accused of trying to join the Islamic State militant group. Authorities said he was detained in Turkey in January trying to get into Syria.

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A lawyer for Pugh, Michael Schneider, declined to comment Wednesday.

Court documents detail Pugh’s alleged interest in extremism long before the Islamic State militant group swept across much of Iraq and Syria last year, inspiring thousands of foreign fighters to move to Syria. Rather, an associate of Pugh’s told the FBI that he had expressed interest in moving to Chechnya to “fight jihad” as far back as 2002, according to the FBI statement filed in the case.

More recently, he married an Egyptian woman named Misha and shared his desire with her to join the militants, the FBI said. A court filing details a letter he wrote to her in January.


A courtroom sketch shows Tairod Pugh, right, appearing before New York U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis, center, in New York on March 18, 2015.
REUTERS/Marilyn Church

“I am Mujahadid,” it said. “I am a sword against the oppressor and a shield for the oppressed. I will use my talents and skills given to me by Allah to establish and defend the Islamic States. There is only two possible outcomes for me. Victory or Martyr.”

The letter continued by noting that if “Allah gives us victory,” the couple would have a home in “Al-sham,” an ancient name for Syria that the militants use.

“I will send for you when it is safe,” Pugh wrote. “You will have a nice home around believers. If I am made a martyr we will have a mansion of indescribable beauty on a magnificent plot of land.”

Pugh added that “1 night guarding the borders for the sake of Allah is worth more than the world and all it contains.”

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Despite the FBI being aware of potentially radical statements made by Pugh in 2001 and 2002, he worked for a number of American firms overseas. That included time as contractor with DynCorp International, a U.S. defense firm, from October 2009 to March 2010 in Iraq, when he performed aircraft avionics for the U.S. Army, court documents state. A company spokesperson declined to comment.

Pugh was stopped for questioning while at Ataturk international airport in Istanbul on Jan. 10, U.S. officials said. He told the Turkish authorities that he was a pilot with U.S. Special Forces who wanted to take a vacation in Turkey, but they didn’t believe him and sent him back to Cairo, the FBI said. From there, he was deported back to the United States.

A Facebook page registered to a man with Pugh’s name showed him with a new wife named Misha on Tuesday. By Wednesday, the account had been take offline. Messages on the page accused Israel of terrorism against Muslims and President Obama of not standing up to Israelis.