US operatives fail in Ghana coup plot

A botched coup attempt in the tiny West African nation of Gambia last week reached into the American heartland on Monday with criminal charges against two United States citizens, accused in federal court of helping to finance, lead and arm the plotters.
The Justice Department said in Washington that the American defendants, both of Gambian descent, were in federal custody. They have been charged with conspiring to violate the Neutrality Act, a seldom-invoked law that prohibits Americans from fighting against a nation at peace with the United States.
The defendants were identified as Cherno Njie, 57, of Austin, Texas, and Papa Faal, 46, of Brooklyn Center, Minn. It was not immediately clear whether they had lawyers or whether other Americans were also under investigation in the case.
Mr. Njie was described in the Justice Department’s criminal complaint as a businessman who financed the plot, involving 10 to 12 participants, and who intended to serve as the interim leader of Gambia if the coup succeeded.
Mr. Faal was described as a dual citizen who had not been in Gambia for 23 years and claimed to have served in both the United States Air Force and the Army.
A Defense Department official said Mr. Faal enlisted in the Army in 2009, became an information technology specialist and served a tour in Afghanistan before he was discharged in 2012. Mr. Faal no longer has ties to the American military, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly.
Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh, an authoritarian leader who took power in
a coup 20 years ago, was abroad on Dec. 30 when the attempt to violently unseat him began. Shooting broke out early in the day near the State House, the presidential palace in Banjul, the capital.
Mr. Jammeh returned to Banjul the next day and accused “terrorist groups backed by some foreign powers” of orchestrating the assault, which had put the country on edge.
But it was not publicly known until Monday that the accused included citizens of the United States.
According to the complaint, filed in federal court in Minnesota, the plot to topple Mr. Jammeh was hatched in October. Roughly a dozen Gambians in the United States, Germany, Britain and Senegal were involved in the plot, the complaint said. The plotters apparently thought, mistakenly, that members of the Gambian armed forces would join their cause.
“The group’s plan for the coup was purportedly to restore democracy to The Gambia and to improve the lives of its people,” the complaint said. “They hoped they would be able to take over the country without having to kill any Gambians.”
Mr. Faal, according to the complaint, helped to purchase weapons in the United States, including M4 semiautomatic assault rifles, and arranged to ship them to Gambia, hidden disassembled in 50-gallon barrels. The plotters also had night- vision goggles, body armor, ammunition, black military-style uniform pants and boots.
On Dec. 30, the complaint said, the plotters, including Mr. Faal, met in the woods near the State House and split into two assault teams, while Mr. Njie waited in a safe place for the attackers to seize control.
The plot went awry when State House guards overwhelmed the attackers with heavy fire, leaving many dead or wounded. Mr. Faal and Mr. Njie escaped and returned to the United States, where they were arrested, the complaint said.

The F.B.I. searched Mr. Faal’s home on Jan. 1, the complaint said, and found items including training manuals for semiautomatic rifles and Google satellite images of Banjul inside a manila folder marked “top secret.” Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.

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