Before a December trip to his native Gambia, Papa Faal dropped off a housewarming gift of kitchen utensils for a Twin Cities friend. During his layover in Washington, D.C., he spent time with a cousin and took his kids to a movie.
Nothing tipped off his hosts that the Brooklyn Park man had more on his mind than a family visit to the West African nation. Then news came that Faal had taken part in a failed effort to topple the Gambian government.
At first blush, Faal, a 46-year-old U.S. citizen, makes for an unlikely player in an armed coup: Despite a decadelong career in the U.S. military, he could come across as more of a scholar than a soldier — a mild-mannered father and IT specialist with two master’s degrees and a novel about an immigrant’s journey to America in the works.
“Why would Papa Faal, who was living a comfortable life in Minnesota, risk his life to change the government of a country in which he hasn’t lived for 23 years?” asks Faal’s friend, Pasamba Jow.
But Faal is also a passionate member of an international network of Gambian expatriates who have tried to train a spotlight on alleged rights abuses back home. Family ties bind him to the turbulent political history of his homeland.
Faal pleaded guilty Thursday to two counts tied to the plot and faces a possible sentence of up to 63 months. Two Gambia natives Faal identified as coup planners — Cherno Njie of Texas and Alagie Barrow of Tennessee — also face charges.
Supporters like Jow say the three are heroes “fighting to liberate their country.” U.S. Attorney Andy Luger, whose team pulled an all-nighter on the case over New Year’s weekend, says they violated an important ban on attacking friendly nations dating to George Washington’s presidency.
‘Couldn’t believe it’
In court and in an interview with the FBI, Faal detailed an audacious scheme that unraveled rapidly. Back in August, Njie and an international group of expatriates plotting Gambian President Yahya Jammeh’s overthrow recruited Faal. With money wired into his account, Faal bought eight semiautomatic rifles and shipped them to Gambia.
The participants traveled to Gambia and on Dec. 30, while Jammeh was out of the country, they set out to take over the State House in Banjul, the capital. They had intelligence suggesting that Gambian soldiers would stand down and even join them. Instead, State House guards shot and killed most members. Faal fled to neighboring Senegal and turned himself in at the U.S. Embassy.
When Faal’s wife, Saibanou, found out about the plot and her husband’s involvement, “I just couldn’t believe it.”
The foray into armed rebellion upended a life Faal had worked hard to build. He came to the United States in his 20s and got a bachelor’s degree at Strayer University in Washington, D.C.
Faal joined the Air Force Reserve in the summer of 2002. Family members say Faal, a Muslim, saw the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as an assault on the American values he celebrated. When he became a U.S. citizen three years later, an Air Force newsletter ran an article titled, “Member embraces new home, cherishes liberty.”
After seven years with the Air Force, Faal joined the U.S. Army. He spent most of 2011 deployed in Afghanistan as an information technology specialist. By the time he retired from the military in 2012, he had earned two master’s degrees and a string of medals and commendations, including the Combat Action Badge.
Faal later settled in Minnesota, where his wife and her family have lived for many years. The family, including 2-year-old daughter Aisha, lives in a four-bedroom house on a quiet Brooklyn Park street, where novels and computer manuals alike pile up on the end tables. Faal worked as an IT consultant and adjunct instructor. He was wrapping up an online doctorate program. Except for a few traffic tickets, he never had a run-in with the law.
Faal is deeply engaged with the local Gambian community, estimated at 1,500 people. Saul Njie, the head of a Gambian cultural center and mosque in Minneapolis, says Faal worked to replicate the quintessential West African community in his new home state. He coordinated Ramadan meals, cleaned up computer viruses for free and helped plan weddings and funerals.
Abdoulaye Saine, a Gambian-born political science professor at Ohio’s Miami University and an acquaintance of Faal, said he was surprised to find out that the man he knew as a low-key geopolitics wonk had served in the U.S. military.
During his plea hearing in federal court in Minneapolis, Faal calmly fielded questions in a clear but soft voice. He smiled warmly at his family, then grew somber as he recounted how the plot devolved into bloodshed.
Book describes 1980s coup
To friends, Faal spoke nostalgically about his youth under his Great-Uncle Dawda Jawara, who ruled the former British colony from 1962 to 1994. In a self-published memoir, Faal describes growing up in a brick-walled compound, “the quiet one in the family and perhaps the most naive,” always falling for his older brothers’ tricks.
The book, “A Week in Hell,” which recounts a failed 1981 coup against Jawara, is a rebuke of West Africa’s devastating history of military interventions. He and his friends, Faal writes, believed in politics as the only route to political change, “except if under autocratic rule and all else had failed.”
It was 13 years later, after Faal had left Gambia, that Jammeh took over in a coup. Human rights organizations have denounced Gambia’s human rights record under Jammeh, who has claimed he can cure AIDS with an herbal skin rub, jailed critics and compared gays to “malaria-causing mosquitoes.”
For Faal, the anti-Jammeh cause was a passion. He and about a dozen other opponents met regularly in Brooklyn Center’s public library to brainstorm how to call attention to their concerns. They met with U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison. They staged a small demonstration in front of the Minnesota Capitol when nine inmates were summarily executed in Gambia in 2012.
“We need every Gambian in every corner of this earth to rise up and fight for their own country,” Faal says in an online video, chopping the air angrily with his hand.
Faal also stayed in close touch with like-minded expats across the country and beyond, says Jow, a spokesman for the Democratic Union of Gambian Activists. Jow says Faal helped with fundraisers and petitions, but he was growing frustrated with the challenge of drawing attention to “a small African country without oil,” Jow said: “Nobody wanted to listen.”
Different views of Jammeh
Here in Minnesota, the Gambian community is far from unanimous when it comes to Jammeh, said Abdullah Kiatamba of African Immigrant Services, which works with the metro’s sizable West African diaspora. Many oppose him. But others feel he has brought stability and developed Gambia’s tourism economy; tribal loyalties play a part, too.
In any case, the Gambian expat community has sprung to action since Faal’s detention. The cultural center in Minneapolis hosted an emergency meeting last month. Meals of domoda (a peanut stew) and other African specialties arrived at Faal’s home.
Fundraising ramped up in Minneapolis; Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. Supporters staged protests in Washington, London and Seattle. Open letters went out to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Jammeh himself.
To supporters, the charges against the conspirators put the U.S. government in an untenable position. The State Department has a long list of concerns about Gambia in its annual human rights reports, and Secretary of State John Kerry has decried Jammeh’s anti-gay comments.
“That the U.S. is calling the Gambia a friendly nation was shocking to all of us,” said Sankung Jawara, Faal’s cousin.
But Tom Heffelfinger, a former U.S. attorney, said the United States cannot tolerate citizens setting their own foreign and military policies: “The fact that the U.S. government has expressed dissatisfaction with a foreign government is not an excuse for residents to arm themselves and attack that government.”
In Minnesota, says Kiatamba, even some who dislike Jammeh have questioned the armed intervention approach and worry the incident will spark division in the close-knit West African community.
But Faal supporters believe good things will come out of the failed coup attempt. Finally, the media are asking questions and politicians are talking about Gambia, says Jow: “This has brought a lot of attention to our plight.”