Two U.S. citizens have been charged with taking part in a failed coup last month to overthrow the Gambian government, a botched effort that ended with some of the attackers being killed and others fleeing the small West African country, federal prosecutors announced Monday.
The men, Cherno Njie, 57, of Austin, and Papa Faal, 46, of Brooklyn Center, Minn., were part of a ring of approximately a dozen co-conspirators who agreed to participate in the coup, according to a criminal complaint.
In an interview with the FBI, Faal admitted playing a role in the coup and identified Njie, a businessman, as one of the leaders and main financiers of the plot, the complaint alleges. Faal told the FBI that Njie intended to serve as the interim leader of the country after they deposed 49-year-old Yahya Jammeh, the president of Gambia.
Jammeh seized power in 1994 after a military coup and has gained attention for a series of eccentric claims, including that he has discovered the cure for AIDS.
The criminal complaint said that Faal was invited to join the group of conspirators in August. He agreed because he was disenchanted with the way “the president was rigging elections” and was worried about the “plight of the Gambian people.”
Their group’s goal was to restore democracy to the small country through a peaceful coup, the complaint says. About 160 members of the Gambian military had supposedly agreed to join them. Njie had hoped to persuade the commander of the Gambian army to stand down and support him, the Justice Department said.
Njie is a U.S. citizen; Faal is a dual citizen of Gambia and the United States and a U.S. military veteran. All of the alleged plotters were of Gambian descent, including some who lived in the United States and Germany.
Faal and two other members of the conspiracy living in the United States bought several semiautomatic rifles, prosecutors said. Faal allegedly told investigators that about 30 weapons were sent to Gambia by cargo ship. The group also acquired body armor, ammunition and night-vision goggles for the assault.
The group had originally planned to ambush the president’s convoy but instead decided to target the government State House in Banjul, the country’s capital.
Split in two teams, the group descended on the State House, the complaint says, before encountering heavy fire and taking serious causalities. Some of the attackers were killed.
Faal managed to escape to Senegal, where FBI agents interviewed him and where he implicated Njie, according to the complaint. Agents later searched Faal’s house and claimed to have found receipts and other items that implicated him in the failed coup.
At Njie’s house, investigators said they discovered a spreadsheet with prices of weapons and logistical support. They also found a document titled “Gambia Reborn: A Charter for Transition from Dictatorship to Democracy and Development.”
Njie and Faal were each charged with one count of conspiracy to violate the Neutrality Act and conspiracy to possess a firearm in furtherance of a crime. If convicted, they face up to 25 years in prison.
Faal appeared Monday in federal court in Minnesota and did not enter a plea. A court spokesman said a detention hearing in his case was scheduled for Thursday; he does not yet have a lawyer.
Njie had an initial appearance in federal court in Maryland. He was detained and extradited to Minnesota, where the case will be prosecuted, a Justice Department spokeswoman said. Njie did not enter a plea, said a federal public defender who appeared with him at the brief hearing.
According to the complaint: “Most, if not all, of the members of the group had served in the U.S. or Gambian military and were avid shooters.”
Faal served 10 years in the U.S. military, including seven years with the Air Force and three years with the Army, and deployed once to Afghanistan, according to U.S. military records and an author biography he posted online. He became a U.S. citizen in December 2005 while he was serving as a senior airman and personnel relocation specialist with the 459th Aerial Refueling Wing at Andrews Air Force Base, according to an Air Force news release at the time.
Faal enlisted in the Army in 2009 and served three years in the 201st Combat Support Battalion at Fort Knox, Ky., attaining the rank of sergeant. He deployed to Afghanistan for most of 2011 before leaving the service in March 2012, according to an Army spokesman.
In 2013, Faal self-published a book, “A Week in Hell,” about an aborted 1981 coup in Gambia that sought to topple his great-uncle, then-President Dawda Jawara. The book tells the story from the point of view of Jawara’s family; Faal was a teenager at the time of the attempted coup. He has promoted the book at several author events in Minnesota, including one in St. Paul as recently as November.
A founding father of the country, Jawara served as prime minister from 1962 to 1970, then held the presidency from 1970 until 1994, when he was ousted by Jammeh.
Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.