An Air Force veteran who tried to join ISIS will spend 35 years in prison. Brooklyn federal judge Nicholas Garaufis handed down the maximum even as he said he assumes the man has “issues” relating to his mental health.
Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh was apprehended in the Istanbul airport in January 2015 on his way to Syria, prosecutors said. Pugh had served four years in the Air Force and then worked for more than two decades as aircraft mechanic in the private sector.
A jury found him guilty of trying to join the terror group and destroying evidence in March 2016 in the first ISIS-related jury trial in the U.S.
“This isn’t about whether you’re Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. This is about whether you’re going to stand up for your country, or betray your country, which has done so much for you,” Garaufis told Pugh. “You made your choice. I have no sympathy.”
Before he was sentenced, Pugh read a lengthy speech from a blue folder, calling himself a patriotic American who served his country not just in the Air Force but also in civilian life. He repeatedly expressed dismay that the government took the words of Turkish “airport police” over that of a military veteran.
“[Employers] sent me to Iraq because al-Qaeda was shooting down planes with surface to air missiles,” he told the judge, adding that he worked to make the planes harder to detect. “I don’t know how many American lives I have saved.”
But the forces of racism and Islamophobia were against him, Pugh claimed. He claimed he wanted to make his home in the Middle East, and “fight against the forces of Bashar al-Asad with America’s blessing” after seeing news of Americans fighting with the Kurds.
“I’m a black man, I’m a military man, a Muslim man. I’ve protected this country,” he said, breaking down in tears.
But the judge cut him off and put a stop to his address.
“I’m sorry sir. I can’t listen to this all day,” Garaufis said. “Your version of the facts is your version of the facts.”
Pugh was on page eight of a 21-page pre-prepared letter, attorney Susan Kellman told The Daily Beast.
“I’m not your psychiatrist, I’m the judge,” the judge added. “And I’m limited in what I can do.”
Nonetheless, Garaufis did not dismiss the defense’s allegations that Pugh suffers from mental illness. (The exact nature of the mental illness was redacted from public filings, and Pugh’s previous attorneys, who represented him during the trial, did not contest his competency before the trial.)
“The fact that the defendant has issues, which I assume he does, does not give him the right to join a foreign terrorist organization which has sworn to destroy other religions, even people within their own religion, and to create a caliphate which will control the earth,” Garaufis said.
Pugh's attorneys applied for a post-conviction acquittal by the judge, which was denied last year. More recently, they filed a lengthy memorandum ahead of sentencing, with redacted portions hinting at potential mental health issues for Pugh—including a lengthy hospital stay relating to depression as a teenager.
Memorably, Pugh asked Garaufis himself to buy Pugh’s Egyptian wife a yacht to tide her over while he served his prison time.
“[Mental health issues] may help to explain Mr. Pugh’s letter to your Honor in which he asks the Court to purchase an extraordinarily expensive yacht for his wife,” defense attorneys wrote.
They asked for him to be sentenced to time served.
Prosecutors, on the other hand, called their reduction arguments—including mental health issues and prior military service—”meritless.”
“Mr. Pugh is unique in that he is 48 years old, has no criminal record, and spent decades living a meaningful, productive, law-abiding life, after serving his country bravely and productively for four years with the U. S. Air Force,” his attorneys wrote. “The absence of a criminal record at age 48 is more significant than it is at age 19 or 20, because it demonstrates the complete aberrance of the offense for which Mr. Pugh was convicted in the context of the rest of a long and productive life.”
"I realize that Tairod has been convicted of this crime. I have no answers!!" his mother, Barbara, said in a hand-written note to the judge. "I know Tairod need help, and is asking for help for him."
Key parts of the prosecution’s case relied on letters written by Pugh to his Egyptian wife, who does not speak English, about his desire to become an ISIS fighter and martyr. The two had to rely on online translation to communicate.
In the letter, Pugh pledged the “talents and skills given to me by Allah to establish and defend the Islamic State.”
“I am a Mujahid. I am a sword against the oppressor and a shield for the oppressed," he wrote. "There is only 2 possible outcomes for me. Victory or Martyr. If Allah gives us Victory we will have a home in [Syria].”
But Pugh never sent the letter, and his attorneys argued it didn’t hold the key for his travels to Istanbul.
Kellman cast her client as a “complicated man” before the judge on Wednesday. She plans to file an appeal.
Indeed, Pugh’s characterization of his own actions mirrored that those internal complications.
“I was leaving to go to war against the Shia, backed by Russia,” he told the judge, mirroring the sectarian wording used by ISIS, even as he claimed to get his inspiration from Americans fighting alongside Kurdish militias.
At another point, he showed apparent regret as his earlier plans of going to work for companies aiding U.S. policy in Turkey. Pugh also quoted the Qur’an and Jesus to the judge, and cited his bar mitzvah ceremony of his Hebrew Pentecostal upbringing.
Garaufis was unmoved. He handed down a 15-year sentence for the terror charge, and another 20 for Pugh’s attempts to destroy evidence. They would be served consecutively, he added.
“It’s a very sad thing that you have done,” Garaufis told Pugh, shaking his head. “Thank you. Have a nice day.”