MINNEAPOLIS — Every other Saturday evening, the coup-plotters excused themselves from their wives and kids to join a conference call. The half-
dozen dissidents — all middle-aged men, most with military experience — dialed in from their suburban homes scattered across the South and Midwest.
There were operational details to discuss, logistical hurdles to overcome. How would they smuggle rifles and night-vision goggles to Gambia, the tiny West African country from which they were exiled? Was their $221,000 budget enough to topple the brutal strongman who had ruled Gambia for two decades?
In the predawn hours of
Dec. 30, according to court documents and interviews with people involved in the operation, the U.S.-based conspirators teamed with other dissidents to assault the Gambian presidential palace. They expected to find it lightly guarded. Instead, they ran into an ambush. Four people were killed. Those who survived fled the country.
Afterward, the Justice Department charged four U.S. residents with taking part in or supporting the failed coup, saying they had violated the Neutrality Act of 1794, an obscure law that prohibits Americans from taking up arms against countries that enjoy peaceful relations with the United States.
What the U.S. government did not disclose, however, was that it had been monitoring the plotters and had secretly tipped off West African authorities to the travel of at least one of them. In doing so, U.S. officials may have at least indirectly helped to protect the president of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, who has drawn international condemnation for his dismal human rights record, his violent rhetoric against gay people and bizarre beliefs such as his claim to have concocted an herbal cure for AIDS.
According to three U.S. law enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because details of the case remain secret, the FBI interviewed the plotters’ lead military planner, Lamin Sanneh, an exiled Gambian army officer, in early December at his home in Maryland. The FBI had been monitoring Sanneh, and agents wanted to know why he had purchased a plane ticket to West Africa, the officials said.
Around the same time, a second plotter who had arrived in Gambia to prepare for the coup confided to co-conspirators that he also had been contacted by a federal agent, according to a person involved in the operation. Soon after, other hints surfaced that Gambian officials had received a tip that a plot was afoot.
The exiles decided to proceed anyway after a Gambian informant assured them they had not been exposed. It was a fatal miscalculation.
According to two U.S. law enforcement officials, the FBI notified the State Department that agents had concerns about Sanneh and that he had left the United States. In turn, one of the U.S. officials said, the State Department alerted authorities in a West African country near Gambia that Sanneh was returning to the region — in hopes that local officials could intercept him and prevent any possible bloodshed. The official said Gambia was not alerted for fear that the country might round up innocent Americans.
Sanneh managed to slip through the net. Like the other conspirators, he flew into Senegal and traveled overland into neighboring Gambia. Although it remains unclear how Gambian authorities learned of the scheme in advance, they laid a trap.
When the plotters tried to seize the presidential palace, “the Gambians are waiting for them,” a U.S. law enforcement official said. Sanneh was among those killed in the ensuing gunfight.
Rodney Ford, a spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, declined to comment. FBI spokesman Kyle Loven also declined to comment.
West Africa has long been riddled by coups and countercoups. But the Gambian putsch was perhaps the first to be hatched on U.S. soil by immigrants who had carved out comfortable lives in their new land.
Most had arrived in the United States decades earlier and worked hard to become citizens and build successful careers. Three had served in the U.S. military; two were veterans of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The investigation into the botched coup has been centered on Minnesota, home of a thriving community of Gambian immigrants as well as the base for federal prosecutors and agents overseeing the case.
Three plotters have pleaded guilty to firearms charges and violating the Neutrality Act. A fourth defendant has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
The prosecutions have stirred anger among many Gambian Americans who fled their country to escape repression under Jammeh. Some praised the coup organizers for risking their lives to bring freedom and democracy to Gambia, while sharply criticizing U.S. officials for siding with a ruler they described as a tyrant.
“Why in the world would they act on his behalf?” asked Pa Modou Ann, a former Gambian army officer who ran afoul of Jammeh in the 1990s and now lives in a Minneapolis suburb. “We have talked about it incessantly because it doesn’t make any sense.”
One plotter who has pleaded guilty likewise expressed astonishment. Papa Faal, a U.S. military veteran who served in Afghanistan, noted that the State Department has blasted the Gambian president’s human rights record for years.
“People need to know: Is this the kind of person who needs to be protected by the country that claims to be a beacon of hope?” said Faal from his home in Brooklyn Park, Minn. He declined further comment because his sentencing is pending.
Dressed in white tribal robes, Jammeh was ushered into the White House on Aug. 5 for a handshake with a smiling President Obama. It was a diplomatic home run for Jammeh, whose government widely circulated a photograph of the encounter.
Jeffrey Smith, an advocacy officer for the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, said that, from Jammeh’s perspective, the photograph’s underlying message back home was invaluable: “He was saying, ‘There’s nothing you can do to oppose my rule. The strongest nation in the world and the strongest man in the world stand behind me.’ ”
Jammeh was invited to Washington to attend a U.S. summit with African leaders. But the special White House welcome puzzled Africa policy experts.
Over the years, Jammeh had irritated the U.S. government by cozying up to Iran, Venezuela and Cuba. He had no tolerance for dissent, at home or abroad. During his August visit to Washington, his bodyguards attacked a group of Gambian dissidents holding a protest outside the Hay-Adams hotel, sending some to the hospital.
Jammeh has earned special notoriety for his persecution of gays. Homosexuality is illegal in Gambia. In August, the government went a step further and declared that the crime of “aggravated homosexuality” would carry a life sentence.
Gambians living in the United States said they’ve long been perplexed at the U.S. government’s unwillingness to take a harder line with Jammeh, whose impoverished country has just 1.9 million people and few natural resources.
“People are surprised and they’re angry, because they find it to be hypocritical,” said Pasamba Jow, a Gambian political activist from Maryland.
Around the time that Jammeh visited Washington, the coup-plotters intensified their planning, according to court records filed by prosecutors and the FBI. They purchased about 30 firearms, body armor, ammunition, night-vision goggles and military-style garb, stuffing the gear in 50-gallon drums and shipping it to Gambia, the records show.
In other ways, the plot came off as amateurish. The players referred to each other with code names such as “X,” “Fox” and “Dave.” One of them kept plans in a folder labeled “Top Secret” but left it at home, where it was later seized by the FBI.
At another defendant’s house, agents found a book titled, “How to Stage a Military Coup: From Planning to Execution.”
According to the FBI, the group was led by Cherno Njie, 57, a real estate developer from Lakeway, Tex.. Njie, who holds dual U.S.-Gambian citizenship, financed the coup attempt and would have replaced Jammeh as president had the plot succeeded, according to the FBI affidavits.
The FBI said it found a document at Njie’s home titled, “Gambia Reborn: a Charter for Transition from Dictatorship to Democracy and Development,” as well as a spreadsheet breaking down the coup’s $221,000 budget.
Njie is the only one of the four defendants to have pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Andrew Birrell, declined to comment fully on the allegations, saying: “It’s a legally and factually complex case.”
According to participants in the plot, the military mind behind the operation was Sanneh, the exiled Gambian officer who was killed while storming the presidential palace. Once a rising star in the Gambian military, Sanneh was awarded a coveted scholarship in 2012 at the National Defense University in Washington, which caters to U.S. military officers and diplomats, as well as foreign students in military exchange programs.
Shortly afterward, he was named head of Gambia’s presidential guard. Within a year, however, he was forced to flee the country after being targeted in one of Jammeh’s frequent political purges. He sought asylum in the United States and lived with his family near Baltimore.
While at National Defense University, Sanneh wrote his thesis on drug trafficking in West Africa and frequently discussed the challenges of fighting corruption with his faculty adviser, Jeffrey Meiser. Although the university emphasizes the importance of civilian rule and working within a democratic system, Meiser said the political situation in Gambia was so hopeless that he could understand why Sanneh felt compelled to lead an armed uprising.
Sanneh, he said, was confronted with a hard choice: “Either I’m going to be corrupt and part of the system, or I’m going to do something about it.”
Similar motivations prompted three U.S. military veterans to join the plot.
Njaga Jagne, a captain with the Kentucky Army National Guard, moved to the United States two decades ago from Gambia. He was deployed twice to Iraq and received his U.S. citizenship in 2006 — on Veterans Day — in a ceremony in Baghdad.
“He believed in the whole idea of going over there to bring the Iraqi people freedom,” said his sister, Sigga Jagne. “That’s who he was; he really believed in those ideas and tenets.”
Another member of the conspiracy was Alagie Barrow, a former officer with the Tennessee Army National Guard. Barrow, 41, has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing. His attorney, Robert Richman, said his client had no reason to believe that fighting for freedom in his homeland was against U.S. law.
“One can certainly sympathize with the decisions of the Gambian expatriate community to do something that would have helped their relatives and friends still in the Gambia, who are living under an abusive regime,” Richman said.
The last to join the group was Faal, who served for a decade with the U.S. military.
Even more than the other plotters, Faal had long seethed at Jammeh’s autocratic rule.
Faal’s great uncle, Dawda Jawara, is considered to be the founding father of Gambia. He served as Gambia’s first prime minister in 1962 and then president after the country won independence from Britain in 1965. He led the country until 1994, when he was ousted in a coup — by Jammeh, then a young army lieutenant.
In 2013, Faal self-published a book about a previous, failed attempt to oust his great uncle. In the book, titled “A Week of Hell,” Faal lamented the chronic coups d’etat that have destabilized West African countries for generations, but he gave no hint that he would soon help plan one.
“When a country’s democratic process fails or is usurped, in my view, it may be necessary for the citizenry to force change through civil disobedience and peaceful demonstration rather than . . . through the barrel of guns,” he wrote. Coups, he added, only plant “the seeds of a future conflict.”
The exiles returned to Gambia separately and set up a safe house in Banjul, the capital. For weeks, they discreetly monitored the comings and goings at the presidential palace, known locally as the State House.
Early on there were hints something was amiss. Barrow, the National Guardsman from Tennessee, told others in early December that he had received a call from a U.S. federal agent, asking where he was.
Later, Sanneh and another plotter met with a soldier in the presidential guard whom they hoped would support the coup. The informant reported that Gambian security forces had received a tip that a plot was in the works but weren’t taking it seriously.
The rebels’ original plan was to intercept Jammeh’s convoy on a highway as he traveled from Banjul to his native village for an annual holiday visit. But Jammeh suddenly left the country instead.
Despite the unexpected developments, the conspirators decided to try to seize the State House anyway and oust Jammeh while he was abroad, according to FBI affidavits.
At 2 a.m. on Dec. 30, the plotters split into two groups – Alpha Team and Bravo Team – and attacked the State House from the front and rear, hoping that a few gunshots would scare off the guards.
But the State House had been fortified with extra soldiers loyal to Jammeh. Sanneh, Jagne and two other rebels were killed.
“The leak happened somewhere,” said one of the participants, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid self-incrimination. “Who did it, we don’t know.”
Three of the accused plotters — Faal, Njie and Barrow — escaped and made their way back to the United States.
The FBI arrested Faal and Njie within days of their return. Barrow was charged in late January. A fourth defendant, Banka Manneh, a Gambian dissident from Jonesboro, Ga., never left the United States but was charged in March with supporting the conspiracy.
Omar Faye, the deputy Gambian ambassador to Washington, said his government was keeping close tabs on the U.S. prosecutions. He declined to comment on particulars of the plot, saying he did not want to interfere with the criminal proceedings.
“This is a very serious situation,” he said. “It is about trying to destabilize or remove a constitutional government that was elected overwhelmingly by the Gambian people.”
Meanwhile, Jammeh has kept up his controversial pronouncements. At a political rally in early May, he warned gays in Gambia that he would personally “slit your throat.”
“If you are a man and want to marry another man in this country and we catch you, no one will ever set eyes on you again, and no white person can do anything about it,” he said.
That prompted a stern response from the White House. In a May 16 statement, Susan E. Rice, the national security adviser, condemned Jammeh’s comments as“unconscionable.” She noted that his threats were part of “an alarming deterioration of the broader human rights situation” in Gambia, including reports of torture.
“We are reviewing what additional actions are appropriate to respond to this worsening situation,” Rice added.
Goldman reported from Washington.