Donald Trump and the Case of Tairod Pugh

Last Thursday Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump told CNN’s Anderson Cooper “I think Islam hates us…we can’t allow people coming into this country who have this hatred of the United States.” It is rhetoric he has stood by since unveiling his Muslim banning plan in December. As a first generation American born to a Pakistani father, an intelligence professional and an American, I am bewildered and disturbed that such a comment can be uttered, let alone taken seriously in 2016. Not only have those on both sides of the aisle called Trump’s plan offensive and un-American, how would it work practically? Nowhere else does the massive hole in Trump’s plan show through then in the case of one Tairod Pugh.

Pugh, a Muslim convert from Neptune, New Jersey, served in the United States Air Force as a mechanic from 1986 to 1990. After leaving the Air Force he held a series of positions in the aviation industry—he even worked as a DynCorp contractor in Iraq. But on January 10, 2015, Pugh’s life took a dramatic turn. Shortly after losing his job, Pugh flew from Egypt to Turkey where he caught the attention of Turkish authorities. While no evidence has emerged that Pugh was under surveillance by the US, Egypt or the Turks, it is clear he was known at least to US authorities. Pugh was interviewed by the FBI in 2001 after a co-worker told authorities that he made pro-Bin Laden statements. Furthermore, during the interview Pugh “expressed interest in traveling to Chechnya to fight jihad.” In spite of these claims, the FBI let Pugh go, seemingly losing track of him. So when Turkish authorities listened to Pugh’s claims that he was a special operations forces pilot visiting Turkey on vacation, they instead suspected he was attempting to enter Syria and put him on a plane back to Egypt. Alerted by the Turks, the Egyptians were equally weary of Pugh, and promptly returned him to the US. Shortly after landing at JFK Pugh was arrested and charged with supporting ISIS, charges which he was convicted of on March 9, 2016.

So what does Tairod Pugh have to do with Donald Trump? In December 2015 Trump’s campaign released a press statement “calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” The problem with Trump’s plan, as Pugh’s case illustrates, is that he was not travelling back to the United States and as such would simply not warrant investigation. In fact, he was forcefully returned to the United States but not before he pleaded with Egyptians to stay because he believed “the U.S. doesn’t like black Muslims.” If it hadn’t been for alert Turkish and Egyptian authorities, either Pugh would’ve been simply returned to the United States undetected or he would’ve been allowed to go on his way. Instead, both the Turks and the Egyptians did what American authorities failed to do, raising the alarm and returning Pugh to the United States. This action demonstrates the capability of the Turks and Egyptians and their willingness to work with the United States. But how would Turkey and Egypt (both Muslim countries) have reacted if Trump’s plan was in place? Might they have agreed with Pugh’s claim that the United States hates Muslims? Surely it would reduce their willingness to cooperate with the US, which would impact detecting and neutralizing threats against the United States—especially those overseas.

From the capture of an ISIS’ chemical weapons operative to the targeting of al-Shabaab fighters planning to attack US and African forces, the US has an effective and pro-active intelligence system which aggressively pursues threats outside of the US border. Pugh’s case illustrate the reliance that the intelligence community, military and law enforcement have on foreign partners as well as the difficulty of identifying, tracking and neutralizing threats. What if Tairod Pugh, an American with a valid US passport, had made it to Syria and then returned to the US? Pugh claimed after his arrest that if he shaved his beard and worn jeans he would have avoided suspicion. Under Trump’s plan Pugh is right. Which begs the larger question: how does the intelligence community determine who is a Muslim? Which then leads to a larger question: is it legal for the US government to determine and track the religion of people? In a country where Americans’ feel uncomfortable with the US government collecting cell phone metadata, can they really be comfortable with database listing the religion of Americans? Thankfully, even as we debate whether Trump’s plan is even viable, the brave men and women in the military, law enforcement and in the intelligence community continue to keep us safe—even without knowing who is and isn’t a Muslim.