The case of a U.S. Air force veteran Tairod Pugh 48, accused of joining ISIS, could depend on whether members of the jury think his interests in the barbaric group are protected by the American rights to free speech or amount to dangerous criminal activity.
“In this country, we don’t punish a person for his thoughts,” Pugh’s lawyer Eric Creizman said Monday.
As the Wall Street Journal reports, Pugh appeared in court wearing khaki pants and a black cardigan over a shirt and tie. He faces one charge of obstructing justice and another charge of trying to provide support to terrorists. If he is found guilty, he could spend up to 35 years in prison. He has pleaded not guilty to the two-count charge. Pugh’s trial is expected to last 14 days.
The Brooklyn federal courtroom was packed, as Pugh is seen as one of the first people to go to trial in the U.S. as an alleged sympathizer of the Islamic State cause.
National security and legal experts are also watching the trial closely to see how American counterterrorism efforts have adjusted to the threat of ISIS, which is notorious for recruiting people through social media and urging them to carry out “lone wolf” attacks against their perceived enemies. Since 2014, over 80 Americans have been detained on various charges affiliated with the Islamic State.
Prosecutors say Pugh earned a reputation for his extremist views working as an airplane mechanic in the Middle East between 1986 and 1990. He sympathized with Osama bin Laden and believed the 9/11 attack was a plot by western nations to exterminate Muslims.
U.S. veteran Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh denies charges that he tried to join the Islamic S… https://t.co/6WCQUhSaZZ pic.twitter.com/mXLOogWARf
— [ New York News ] (@goinnewyork) March 19, 2015
Pugh also watched IS beheadings and terrorism training videos online. He reportedly posted comments on social media supporting the cause of the militant group and aligned with other sympathizers he found on the internet. In 2014, when the Islamic State beheaded the first American hostage, Pugh told his co-workers the group had “a right to defend itself.”
Former co-workers remember him well for causing incessant rifts in the two small airline companies he worked with in Kuwait and Dubai about his views on American foreign policy and the justification for the jihad.
Assistant United States attorney Mark Bini told the jury in his opening statement that Pugh had boarded a flight from Cairo to Turkey with the purpose of finding his way across the Turkish-Syrian border into Islamic State territory. Bini also referred to a letter written by Pugh to his wife, where he outlined his desire to fight for ISIS and become a martyr. The letter allegedly was a draft on his computer. He had not sent it to his wife.
Prosecutors also say that Pugh was traveling with flash drives that contained maps and areas controlled by the Islamic State and tried to destroy them when he was apprehended in Asbury Park, New Jersey, after he was deported back to the U.S. by Turkish authorities.
Pugh’s defense lawyer, Eric Creizman, said his client was on his way to Turkey on a job hunt, pointing out that he carried a letter of recommendation and resume in his luggage and that he also wanted to clear his head and carried a “list of bathhouses” that he wanted to visit.
Creizman acknowledged Pugh’s internet activities, saying “he very much admired ISIS. But none of this is illegal. These are protected activities, thoughts, statements and beliefs.”
The major question that needs to be proven during this trial would be whether Pugh was on his way to Istanbul looking for work or hoping to join the radical group — ISIS. What would the jury make of all his fiery incitements and online interest towards the world’s most dangerous militant group? Mr. Creizman maintains his interests are just a “fantasy.”
[Photo by Elizabeth Williams/AP]