The Shadowy U.S. Veteran Who Tried to Overthrow a Country

Papa Faal says he and other ex-American soldiers tried to shoot their way into the home of Gambia’s president.

01.06.15 10:55 AM ET

A U.S. Army veteran and a Texas businessman appeared in federal court Monday charged with a most unusual crime: plotting to overthrow the West African government of Gambia.

And there may have been more Americans—and possibly more American veterans—involved, based on statements given to an FBI agent by Papa Faal, the vet whose alleged role in the plot involved smuggling weapons into Gambia.

“Most, if not all, members of the group had served in the U.S. or Gambian military,” Faal told FBI agent Nicholas Marshall, according to an affidavit.

While Faal appeared in a Minnesota courtroom, his alleged co-conspirator, Gambian-American Cherno Njie, stood before a Baltimore judge. The two had been working together since August, but Faal may have only recently learned the name of Njie, the would-be ruler of Gambia.

“The members of the group were known to each other by code names,” Marshall’s affidavit noted. Faal’s code name was “Fox.”

The Pentagon said Faal served in the Air Force for seven years, during which time he became a U.S. citizen. He later spent three years in the Army, starting with training at Georgia’s Fort Benning and serving as a sergeant during an 11-month deployment to Afghanistan in 2011, Army officials confirmed.

Faal told the FBI that his group was trying “restore democracy to The Gambia and improve the lives of its people.”

Believing they had “up to 160 members of the local Gambian military” on their side and that the president’s guards wouldn’t risk their lives to defend him, the coup members “hoped they would be able to take over the country without having to kill any Gambians,” according to Faal.

Faal has some experience in both political and security matters, it seems. The Amazon biography for an author named Papa Faal mentions both Gambia and lists a military record that matches the FBI report.

“Papa Faal is from the Gambia, West Africa. He served in the United States military for 10 years, spending seven years of his service in the United States Air Force with the 459th ARW, and three years in the United States Army with the 201st Brigade Support Battalion. He culminated his military service with a tour in Afghanistan.”

Faal’s book, A Week of Hell: How Rebels Shattered the Innocence and Peace of a Nation—One Family's Story of Survival, details the bloody consequences of a previous attempt to take over Gambia’s government.

A Week of Hell recounts the events of 1981, when, as the book recounts, “a gang of rebels took over the [Gambian] government and held the president’s wife and children… hostage while releasing the country’s most dangerous prisoners to inflict a frenzy of carnage and chaos.”

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Faal evades easy categorizations. He is an American and a Gambian, a published author of political history working on his doctorate, and a U.S. Army and Air Force veteran. But those strands of his identity are all wound around the conspiracy that led him back to Gambia for the first time in 23 years.

Gambia’s current president, Yahya Jammeh, was a junior military officer when he took power after leading his own coup in 1994. For the past 18 years, Jammeh has commemorated the date of his coup, which overthrew a democratically elected government, with a national celebration.

The man seeking to depose Jammeh, Gambian-American Texas businessman Njie, was known to Faal by his code name “Dave” during their months of planning. Njie has no obvious qualifications for running a country, but a search of his apartment by the FBI turned up evidence of his planning.

Along with a spreadsheet logging weapons purchases and other expenses, investigators found two documents. One was a handwritten note “that appears to describe the author’s vision for The Gambia following a transition in political power.” A second document was titled: “Gambia Reborn: A Charter for Transition from Dictatorship to Democracy and Development.”

A November 2014 profile of Njie by the editor of the Texas-based newspaper The Gambia Echo & Tribune begins with a quote from Shakespeare and proceeds to greater heights of reverence. Njie is a “serious fellow with a very sharp intellect, unassuming, attentive, calm and calculating but equally shrewd and lucid and above all, highly disciplined and introspective with a penchant for academic and political discourse.” He’s also the “CEO and owner of dual multimillion-dollar Austin-based companies,” a source of Gambian pride, and an exemplar of American exceptionalism, according to the article. 

While “Dave” handled money and orchestrated between the various plotters, unknown to each other, Faal’s job was getting guns to Gambia.

Faal legally purchased M4 semi-automatic rifles—the same model used by the U.S. Army—hid them in barrels stuffed with clothing, and shipped them to Gambia under an alias. Another member of the plot took care of the ammo along with black uniforms, night-vision equipment, and body armor.

The various members met for the first time when they traveled to Gambia at the beginning of December to carry out their plan. There, according to Faal’s account to the FBI, they acted like a group with some military experience. They conducted reconnaissance and dry runs, and adjusted their plans when they got new intelligence about the president’s whereabouts.

The conspirators were split into two teams, “Alpha” and “Bravo.” Alpha was to storm the State House, where they expected the president to be on New Year’s Day, and Bravo was to secure the rear of the building. Their leader, Njie, still going by “Dave” during the operation, would stay a safe distance away until the State House was secure.

As it happened, the coup members found the State House “fortified with additional soldiers.” When an Alpha Team member fired a shot in the air meant to scare off the guards whom they didn’t expect to put up much of a fight, they took “heavy fire from the guard towers.”

From there the plan went to hell. Alpha Team was killed, Faal told the FBI, while the Bravo members who were not gunned down fled. While Faal and Njie are in U.S. custody, the whereabouts of the other survivors is unknown.

Gambia’s president, Jammeh, has denied there was any coup attempt. He called the events last week “an attack by dissidents based in the U.S., Germany, and U.K.,” and pointed to U.S.-made weapons involved in the plot.

Jammeh is known for making wild claims. In 2007 he said he had discovered a cure for AIDS using natural herbs. But his account of a dissident plot involving Gambian expats using U.S. weapons is similar to what Faal told the FBI. Most coup members “lived in the diaspora in the United States and Germany,” Faal said.