WASHINGTON – Two men have been charged in the United States with conspiring to help overthrow the government of the small West African nation of Gambia, federal prosecutors said Monday.
Both men, U.S. citizens of Gambian descent, remain in federal custody following court appearances Monday in Baltimore and Minneapolis.
The charges stem from a Dec. 30 coup attempt in the former British colony, which came as the longtime ruler was away. Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, who has since returned to the capital, blamed "terrorist groups" for the coup attempt and alleged that plotters had received backing from foreign countries.
Prosecutors say the two men, Cherno Njie and Papa Faal, traveled separately from the United States to Gambia to participate in the unrest there. They later returned to the U.S, where they were charged with weapons violations and with breaking a law that makes it illegal to take military action against a country with whom the U.S. is "at peace."
Faal, 46, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Gambia who lives in the state of Minnesota, told investigators that he was invited in August to join a group of fighters in the United States bent on overthrowing the government. He said he was motivated to be part of the group out of concern that elections were being rigged and for the "plight of the Gambian people," according to court papers.
Human rights activists have long criticized the government in Gambia, a small nation bordered by Senegal, for targeting political opponents, journalists and gays and lesbians. The U.S. government recently removed Gambia from a trade agreement in response to human rights abuses, including a law signed in October that imposes life imprisonment for some homosexual acts.
Faal told the authorities that the movement was composed of men of Gambian descent who primarily lived in the U.S. and Germany, and most had military experience, prosecutors say. As part of the preparations, he purchased semi-automatic rifles in Minnesota that were then shipped by cargo ship to Gambia, according to the Justice Department.
The group hoped to take control of the government without having to kill Gambians, and though its members initially contemplated ambushing the president's convoy in hopes that he would surrender, they changed plans once the leader left the country and decided instead to attack the Gambian State House, court papers allege.
After the plotters were defeated, Faal escaped by ferry to neighboring Senegal, where he went to the U.S. Embassy. He was interviewed by U.S. officials and gave the FBI permission to search his home in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, prosecutors say. A man who answered the door at Faal's home identified himself as Faal's brother-in-law but declined to comment and wouldn't give his name.
Faal appeared in court in Minneapolis on Monday and will remain held pending a detention hearing later this week.
Prosecutors allege that Faal identified Njie, a 57-year-old citizen of Gambian descent and resident of Austin, Texas, as one of the financiers and leaders of the coup.
Njie was arrested over the weekend after flying into Dulles International Airport near Washington from Senegal. At a court appearance in Baltimore on Monday, he agreed to remain in custody and be transported to Minnesota to face charges.
A woman who answered at his Austin address described herself as his wife but declined to provide her name. Regarding the charges against Njie, she said, "I don't think that information is right."
One supporter of Njie's, Gambian-American activist Pasamba Jow, told The Associated Press that he was part of a community of diaspora activists who have been working to "find a remedy" to the political situation in Gambia, Jow said.
"Even if what he's accused of were true, I think he was doing it for the sake of democracy in a country denied all legal venues to change their government," said Jow, a Washington, D.C.-based member of the Democratic Union of Gambian Activists.
That has included approaching the European Union, the State Department, the United Nations, and organizing the opposition on the ground, he said.
"Every legal avenue has been taken and has been thwarted by Jammeh and his henchmen," he added.
Nonetheless, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the charges highlight "the importance we place on preventing our citizens from taking part in violence of this nature overseas." She called on Gambia "to respect human rights and the rule of law in its investigation of the attempted coup."
Social security records show that Njie has registered 32 businesses, and he is listed on the website of Austin-based Songhai Development Corp. as the founder. Repeated calls to the corporate office were not returned. Njie was part of the Texas housing agency in 1996 when it was audited over how it selected tax-subsidized projects for poor families. Njie ran the tax-credit office.