Minnesota man charged in plot to overthrow government of Gambia

A Minnesota man has been charged for his role in an attempt to violently overthrow the government of Gambia. Papa Faal, 46, of Brooklyn Center, Minn. will appear in federal court in Minneapolis on Monday. Co-defendant Cherno Njie, 57, of Austin, Texas will make a court appearance on the same charges in Baltimore.

Gambia is a small West African nation border by Senegal. According to the indictment, Faal and Njie were among 10 to 12 who entered Gambia to carry out the coup attempt, with the expectation that 160 members of the local Gambian military would join them in ousting President Yahya Jammeh.

"These defendants stand accused of conspiring to carry out the violent overthrow of a foreign government, in violation of U.S. law," said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. "The United States strongly condemns such conspiracies. With these serious charges, the United States is committed to holding them fully responsible for their actions."

The charges

Conspiracy to violate the Neutrality Act

Conspiracy to possess a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence

According to the charges, Faal and Njie traveled separately from the United States to Gambia. Njie is a Texas businessman and allegedly served as financier and leader of the conspiracy, with the expectation he would claim interim leadership of the Gambian government. Faal has military experience, having served in both the U.S. Air Force and U.S Army.

Prior to leaving the United States, Faal and other co-conspirators allegedly purchased semi-automatic rifles, night-vision goggles, body armor and military-style uniforms that were shipped to Gambia for use in the coup attempt.

Faal said he legally purchased eight M-4 semi-automatic rifles at gun shops in Minnesota, hiding them in four 5-gallon barrels that were stuffed with clothing. The barrels were loaded onto shipping containers and sent to Gambia by cargo ship. Faal estimated that 30 weapons were in the total shipment.

Failed mission

An initial plan to ambush the president's convoy was abandoned in favor of a Dec. 30 attack on the state house in Banjul. The group split into two assault teams -- Alpha and Bravo -- and setup in the woods about a half-mile from the residence. Njie wasn't part of the assault mission, choosing to wait nearby until the state house was secured by the group.

Alpha Team was responsible for breaching the front door using a rented vehicle, then disarming the guards and taking control of the building. Bravo Team was tasked with securing the rear of the building. They believed the Gambian Army soldiers guarding the state house would drop their weapons, unwilling to die for the president. They also expected a battalion of Gambian soldiers in support of their mission would arrive and offer support.

Just as planned, Alpha Team fired a shot into the air, which was unexpectedly met by heavy gunfire from the guard towers. Alpha Team tried to ram the door of the state house with the rented vehicle, and Faal believes all members of that assault team were killed. A member of Bravo team was killed in a second effort to breach the state house.

Faal fled the scene, changed into street clothes and tried to blend into the crowds on the street. He eventually traveled to Senegal by ferry and went to the U.S. Embassy in Dakar, where he was interviewed about the failed coup. Upon arrival in the Washington, D.C. Faal was taken into custody by the FBI and questioned. Njie also returned to the U.S. and was arrested.

A search of Faal's home in Brooklyn Center, Minn. turned up three 55-gallon drums, three manuals for semi-automatic rifles, a Google satellite images of Gambia inside of a manila folder labeled "top secret" in handwritten black ink.

The motive

Faal told investigators he joined the movement because "the president was rigging elections "and he was concerned with "the plight of the Gambian people." While he hadn't lived in Gambia for 23 years, he still had family in the country and felt a strong connection to its people.

Editor's note: The video of Papa Faal at the Minnesota Capitol two years ago is courtesy of The Africa Paper.