From his home in Brooklyn Park, a U.S. Air Force veteran helped to plot a coup to overthrow the president of Gambia. It didn’t work.
On Monday, Papa Faal, 46, stood before U.S. Magistrate Judge Franklin Noel, accused of conspiring to violate the Neutrality Act by making a military expedition against a friendly nation. He is one of two Americans charged Monday in connection with their roles in the plot.
In the criminal complaint made public Monday, Faal described the failed coup Dec. 30 as an attempt to restore democracy in the West African nation.
Twenty-three years after he left his native country, Faal said, he joined the movement because he was disenchanted by the way Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh “was rigging elections.”
Faal shipped a handful of guns to Gambia, hidden among clothing and other goods in four 50-gallon drums. He then went there himself, financed by their interim leader, a businessman whose code name was “Dave.”
But on Dec. 30, the expected revolt became a fiasco. Only a dozen or so soldiers stormed the government State House in the capital, Banjul. Faal had expected the Gambian army to flee or join the rebellion, but instead they opened fire, killing several rebels.
Faal fled first to nearby Senegal, then back to the United States, where he was arrested at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.
A second man, Cherno Njie, 57, of Texas, who was “Dave,” also is in custody and made an appearance in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on Monday. Njie’s case will be transferred to Minnesota, the U.S. attorney’s office in Minneapolis said.
U.S. Attorney Andy Luger praised the work of prosecutors and FBI agents who worked nonstop over a holiday weekend “to uncover evidence of the plot to overthrow the Gambian government.”
At his court appearance on Monday, Faal was dressed in orange jail clothes. Standing beside federal public defender Andrew Mohring, Faal said he was a Gambian and a U.S. citizen. He said he and his wife own two cars and have a $150,000 home mortgage, plus $150,000 in student loans between the two of them. He said he teaches computer courses at a technical institute.
Magistrate Noel set a hearing for 2 p.m. Thursday to determine whether Faal will continue to be detained.
Supporters: He’s a hero
After court was recessed, Yero Jallow waved to Faal, and called out, “Stay strong.” He later identified himself as Faal’s “comrade in struggle.”
Outside the courthouse, Jallow said Faal was “a freedom fighter” of “good moral characters”engaged in “self-defense” against an oppressive government led by Jammeh.
“The person is a dictator,” Jallow said.
In a phone interview, Pa Modou Ann of Maple Grove, who described himself as the leader of the national resistance movement of Gambia, estimated that more than half of the 2,500 to 3,000 Gambians living in Minnesota oppose Jammeh’s government. “The Gambian people see Mr. Faal as a hero, as a liberator,” he said, “someone who wants to remove Gambians from the clutches of dictatorship.”
Jammeh seized power in a coup in 1994 when he was a young army lieutenant. There have been at least four military attempts to oust him.
“Mr. Jammeh’s government has been criticized by international rights groups for its attitude to civil liberties, especially freedom of the press,” according to a BBC News update published Dec. 30. Last year, Jammeh described gays as “vermin” and said they should be eradicated like mosquitoes.
Jammeh was traveling outside the country when the dissidents descended on the State House, according to a Dec. 30 New York Times article. He returned to Gambia on Dec. 31 and accused dissidents backed by foreign powers of mounting an attack on the capital the day before, according to the Reuters news service.
“While gunfire around the presidential palace early Tuesday suggested a coup attempt, Mr. Jammeh dismissed such talk, saying Gambia had been attacked by dissidents based in the United States, Germany and Britain,” Reuters said.
Alpha and Bravo teams
According to the criminal complaint, Faal and two other members of the group purchased eight M4 and AKM firearms at gun shops.
Faal purchased the weapons using $6,000 provided to him by “Subject #1.” A person identified as “Subject #2” acquired body armor and ammunition, also shipped to Gambia. The group also was equipped with two pairs of night-vision goggles and black military-style uniform pants and boots, the complaint said.
In Gambia, the rebels met up in December, did some reconnaissance and split into two teams — “Alpha” and “Bravo” — and prepared their assault. But when they arrived at the State House, they found it had been fortified with additional soldiers. The Alpha Team fired into the air, “hoping the soldiers would give up,” the complaint said. “Instead, the group began taking heavy fire from the guard towers.”
About a half-dozen of the rebels were believed to have been killed.
On Jan. 1, the FBI raided his home in Brooklyn Park. On Saturday, the FBI searched Njie’s resident and business offices in Lakeway and Austin, Texas, and found “a handwritten document that appears to describe the author’s vision” for a transition in political power in Gambia.
Attorney Anders Folk, a former assistant U.S. attorney, on Monday called Gambia “a repressive government” but said the purpose of prosecuting the two men is “to prevent people from conducting freelance foreign policy missions against foreign governments with whom the United States has relationships. … The United States government doesn’t want people to take matters into their own hands.”
Former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger also supported the prosecutions.
“We are at peace with Gambia,” he said. “And if we are at peace with them, it is a violation of federal law to conspire from the United States by preparing for or financing or initiating a coup or, as the statute says, an expedition.”
Both Folk and Heffelfinger said the charges could bring up to a life sentence.
Visitors from mobile devices, view the court documents here.