Two Americans were charged Monday in what the U.S. is calling an attempted coup in Gambia, though the African nation’s President told local media it was a terrorist attack.
Cherno Njie, 57, a U.S. businessman of Gambian descent living in Austin, Texas, and Papa Faal, 46, a dual U.S.-Gambian citizen from Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, were charged “for their role in a recent attempted coup” that happened on December 30, the Justice Department said in a statement.
Njie, who the criminal complaint says was expected to become Gambia’s interim leader if the coup had prevailed, and Faal both traveled to the West African nation in December to overthrow the government, according to the criminal complaint.
Before a team of 10 to 12 conspirators entered Gambia last month, Faal, who went by the codename “Fox,” and two others procured 24 semiautomatic rifles between August and October and shipped them to Gambia, the complaint says. The conspirators also acquired night vision goggles, body armor, ammunition and black military clothing and boots, it says.
They expected up to 160 members of the local Gambian military to join them, and most members of the group had served in the U.S. or Gambian military and were avid shooters, the complaint says.
The original plan was to ambush Gambian President Yahya Jammeh as he traveled around the country over the holidays, but when the group learned Jammeh was leaving the country on December 26, they abandoned their plan, the complaint says.
A person identified only as “Subject No. 1” was the military leader who controlled the money for the operation, the complaint says. Faal told authorities that he understood that each man participating in the event received $4,000 to pay their bills, according to the complaint.
Subject No. 1 is the same person who gave Faal $6,000 to buy rifles, the complaint says.
“On Dec. 30, 2014, a number of the co-conspirators, including Faal, met in the woods near the State House in Banjul, which is the home of the Gambian president, and split into two assault teams,” the Justice Department news release states.
Njie, who used the pseudonym “Dave,” aimed to wait “in a safe place until the assault teams took control of the facility,” the criminal complaint says. The plan was for Njie to wait until the State House was seized and then meet with the Gambian army commander to persuade him to accept the new leadership, it says.
“However, when one of the assault teams approached the State House and fired a shot into the air, the team began taking heavy fire from the guard towers,” the statement says, adding that numerous conspirators were killed or injured.
Faal got on a ferry to Senegal the next day and fled the country. Njie also escaped. Both returned to the U.S., where they were arrested, the Justice Department said.
“These defendants stand accused of conspiring to carry out the violent overthrow of a foreign government, in violation of U.S. law,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “The United States strongly condemns such conspiracies. With these serious charges, the United States is committed to holding them fully responsible for their actions.”
A summary of the government’s investigation alleges that Faal admitted in an FBI interview to being part of the attempted coup and identified Njie as one of the leaders and financiers of the group behind the plot.
Faal left Gambia 23 years ago but still has family in the country. He joined the movement allegedly behind the coup because he was upset by how “the president was rigging elections” and had other concerns about the plight of the Gambian people, the criminal complaint says.
“The group’s plan for the coup was purportedly to restore democracy to The Gambia and to improve the lives of its people. They hoped they would be able to take over the country without having to kill any Gambians,” the complaint says.
All of the co-conspirators who Faal knew were of Gambian descent, though only some of them lived in Gambia. Others lived in Senegal, the U.S., Germany and UK, according to the complaint.
Both men are in custody, and Faal is expected to appear Monday in the U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, while Njie is scheduled to appear in federal court in Baltimore, the statement said. They are each charged with a count of conspiracy to possess a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence, as well as a violation of the Neutrality Act, which forbids Americans from participating in or financing military operations against countries with which the U.S. is at peace.
At Faal’s home in Minnesota, authorities found manuals for semiautomatic rifles, Google satellite images of Gambia and receipts for 55-gallon drums that Faal said he bought to hide the rifles, the complaint says. At locations in Austin and Lakeway, Texas, both of which belonged to Njie, authorities found a piece of paper with Faal’s birth date and passport number, a spreadsheet with weapon prices and a “handwritten document that appears to describe the author’s vision for The Gambia following a transition of political power.”
A wife of one of the coup participants who was killed also told authorities that she received a call from an unknown man who told her that her husband had been killed, the complaint says. The call came from the number on Njie’s business card for Chelsea Seniors I, LLC, where he was a manager, the complaint says.
Despite repeated references to a coup in U.S. government documents, Jammeh told his Cabinet last week that the plot was a “terrorist attack” perpetrated by “Gambian dissidents in the U.S., Germany and UK.”
“We have a comprehensive understanding of what they had been planning,” Jammeh said, according to the Daily Observer newspaper. “What is so interesting is the fact that we were able to get all that they had in their computer. We had all the information about their plans for which we will release very soon.”
The State Department acknowledged reports of last week’s attack and issued a statement saying, “We strongly condemn any attempt to seize power through extra-constitutional means. We regret the loss of life and call on all parties to refrain from further violence.”
Jammeh said the conspirators involved in last week’s plot will be dealt with harshly, according to The Point newspaper.
“We will get to the bottom of this and we will not spare anybody. I will set an example and let everybody be prepared for that. Enough is enough. They want to destroy our country, we will destroy them,” he reportedly said.