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United States of America v. Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh

Court United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, United States
Case number 15-CR-116
Decision title Jury Verdict
Decision date 9 March 2016
  • United States of America
  • Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh
Categories Material support to terrorism, Terrorism
Keywords Terrorist Offence, terrorist organisation, Foreign fighters, Provision of material support for terrorism, Islamic State
Other countries involved
  • Egypt
  • Turkey
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Tairod Pugh is an US citizen and a US Air Force veteran who was convicted for providing material support to a terrorist organisation by attempting to travel to Syria in order to join ISIL, and obstruction of justice. After having worked in the Middle East for more than a year as an airplane mechanics, Pugh attempted to reach Syria through Turkey. On 10 January 2015, the defendant took a plane from Cairo and landed in Istanbul airport. As he refused a search of his laptop by the Turkish authorities, he was denied entry and was sent back to Cairo. Upon his arrival, he was detained by the Egyptian authorities who found damaged electronic devices in Pugh’s possession. On 15 January, he was deported from Egypt to the US and was arrested the following day in New Jersey. Pugh’s conviction is the first one after a trial by jury in the US involving an individual who attempted to travel to Syria to join ISIL. On 31 May 2017, he was sentenced to 35 years in prison.   

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Procedural history

As he was flying from Egypt to Turkey, Tairod Pugh was denied entry in the country and sent back to Cairo on 10 January 2015, where he was detained by Egyptian officials. On 15 January, the defendant was deported from Egypt to JFK airport. On 16 January, Pugh was arrested in New Jersey pursuant to an arrest warrant.

The defendant was charged on 16 March 2015 with one count of attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organisation, and one count for obstruction of justice. He pled not guilty.   

On 9 December 2016, the Government introduced a motion to empanel an anonymous jury as the case involved charges relating to an extremely violent terrorist organisation which attracted a lot of media attention. The motion was granted by the Court. Then on 21 December, Pugh brought 6 motions which were all denied by the judge. Finally, on 12 February 2016, the defendant attempted to exclude from trial a draft letter to his wife and some ISIL videos retrieved from his electronic devices. He, inter alia, advanced his right to marital communication privileges. The Court, however, found the draft letter and most of the ISIL videos admissible. 

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Related developments

On 1 August 2016, Pugh filed an order under Rule 29 to obtain an acquittal as he contended the government failed to prove, as a matter of law, that he was guilty of either Count One or Two beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court found that the burden of proof had been met and denied the order.

The defendant was sentenced to 35 years in prison on 31 May 2017 by Judge Nicolas G. Garaufis of the federal courthouse in Brooklyn.

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Legally relevant facts

Tairod Pugh is a US citizen and a US air force veteran. Following his military service, the defendant worked as an airplane mechanic at various companies and eventually moved to the Middle East.

From late 2013 to December 2014, the defendant was hired in Dubai and in Kuwait, but his co-workers noticed his pro-ISIL comments and his publications of ISIL propaganda on his Facebook account, leading to his layoff.

From October 2014 on, Pugh extensively viewed and downloaded ISIL propaganda videos, conducted web searches relating to travelling to Syria to join ISIL, and downloaded a chart of crossing points between Turkey and Syria. The defendant drafted a letter to his wife, referring to himself as a “mujahid” who intended to defend and help establish the Islamic State.

On 10 January 2015, Pugh flew from Cairo to Turkey. Upon arrival at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, he was stopped by the Turkish authorities for questioning. As he refused the search of his laptop, the defendant was denied entry and sent back to Cairo. The Egyptian authorities found several electronic devices in Pugh’s possession and determined that his laptop had been water damaged, his iPod was wiped clean of data and his USB thumb drives missed their outer casings. The FBI searched the devices on 12 January pursuant a warrant.

On 15 January, Pugh was deported from Egypt and arrived in JFK airport. As he was waiting to be interviewed by the Department of State, the defendant began speaking with an undercover FBI agent. Pugh gave him advice on how to get through Turkey to Syria. 

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Core legal questions

Is the defendant guilty of the crimes as charged in the indictment? That is,

  • Did the defendant’s actions amount to an attempt to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organisation, as provided by 18 U.S.C. para 2339B(a)(1)?
  • Did the defendant obstruct an official proceeding according to 18 U.S.C. paras 1512(c)(1) and (c)(2)?
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Specific legal rules and provisions

18 U.S.C. para. 2339B(a)(1): attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organisation.

18 U.S.C. paras 1512(c)(1) and (c)(2): obstruction of an official proceeding.Tairod Pugh was found guilty on both Count One and Court Two. In a jury trial, no legal reasoning is provided for the decision. The judge nevertheless gave the jury instructions which help to understand the conviction in light of the relevant legal provisions.

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Court's holding and analysis

The defendant was found guilty of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organisation, as:

  • ISIL has been designated as a foreign terrorist organisation by the US Secretary of State and satisfies the definition of “foreign terrorist organization” within the meaning of 18 U.S.C. para. 2339B(a)(1) (p. 24 of the Jury Charge).
  • By trying to join ISIL as a foreign fighter, Pugh provided material support to ISIL (his own person) and knowingly attempted to work under the organisation’s direction or control (p. 23-24).
  • Pugh did so knowingly and intentionally, meaning that he knew one of the three following things: (1) ISIL had been designated as a foreign terrorist organisation, (2) it engaged in terrorist activity, and (3) it engaged in terrorism (p. 25).
  • Pugh intended to provide material support to ISIL by joining to fight the jihad and took some substantial steps to achieve this goal (p. 26).

The defendant’s conduct of damaging his electronic devices amounted to the obstruction of an official proceeding:

  • By destroying several USB drives and his computer, Pugh altered the documents (p. 27).
  • His intent was to impair the object’s availability in an official proceeding as he was aware that it could contain evidence against him (p. 28).
  • Pugh behaved corruptly as he acted with the improper purpose of obstructing the due administration of justice (p.28).

The jury rejected Pugh’s defence that any thoughts he harboured about ISIL were just fantasies.

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Further analysis

L. Vidino and S. Hughes, ‘ISIS in America, from retweets to Raqqa’, Program on Extremism The George Washington University, 2015.

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Instruments cited

United States Code, Supplement 5, Title 18 – CRIMES AND CRIMINAL PROCEDURE, Chapter 113B Terrorism, 2006, United States.

United States Code, Supplement 5, Title 18 – CRIMES AND CRIMINAL PROCEDURE, Chapter 73 Obstruction of Justice, 2006, United States.

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Related cases

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Additional materials

'Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh’, Counter Extremism Project.

U.S. Attorney’s Office Eastern District of New York, ‘United States Air Force Veteran Charged With Attempting to Provide Material Support to ISIL’, Department of Justice, 17 March 2015.

S. Clifford, ‘Air Force Veteran From New Jersey Tried to Aid ISIS, US Charges’, The New York Times, 17 March 2015.

ISIS-related Arrests in the U.S.’, The Wall Street Journal, last updated on 11 February 2016.

J. Goldstein, ‘Trial Opens for Air Force Veteran Accused of Trying to Join ISIS’, The New York Times, 29 February 2016.

U.S. Attorney’s Office Eastern District of New York, ‘Jury Finds Air Force Veteran Guilty in the First ISIL Conviction After Trial in the United States’, Department of Justice, 9 March 2016.

J. Goldstein, ‘Tairod Pugh, Ex-US Serviceman, Is Found Guilty of Trying to Aid ISIS’, The New York Times, 9 March 2016.

U.S. Attorney’s Office Eastern District of New York, ‘Air Force Veteran Sentenced to 35 Years in Prison for Attempting to Join ISIS and Obstruction of Justice’, Department of Justice, 31 May 2017.

L. Neumeister, ‘Tairod Pugh, Air Force vet convicted of terrorism, gets 35 years in prison’, The Washington Times, 1 June 2017.