WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Federal prosecutors on Monday charged a Texas businessman who allegedly wanted to be the president of Gambia with conspiring with a former U.S. Army sergeant and others to orchestrate a deadly coup attempt in the tiny African nation last week.
The handful of coup plotters headed and bankrolled by housing developer Cherno Njie, 57, of Austin, had expected presidential palace guards to flee at a shot in the air when they attacked on Dec. 30, according to a federal complaint.
But guards returned fire, killing one group of attackers, and sympathetic Gambian soldiers failed to show up as expected. The rest of the 10 to 12 conspirators fled, their hopes shattered for a bloodless overthrow of President Yahya Jammeh and a restoration of democracy, the court document said.
Federal prosecutors in Minnesota charged Njie and Papa Faal, 46, a former U.S. Army sergeant from Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, with conspiring to carry out a coup and a weapons violation. Both are U.S. citizens with ties to Gambia.
“The United States strongly condemns such conspiracies. With these serious charges, the United States is committed to holding them fully responsible for their actions,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
Jammeh, who took power in a coup 20 years ago and wields tight control of the impoverished nation, has said the attack was carried out by “terrorist groups backed by some foreign powers.”
After the coup bid, the United States and the United Nations both condemned any attempts to seize power.
A U.S. criminal complaint said Njie had planned to serve as leader of Gambia, an nation of about 1.8 million people and the smallest country on mainland Africa.
Njie is the president of Songhai Development Co LLC in Austin, which specializes in multifamily housing developments, including retirement properties. A Pentagon official said Faal had served a tour in Afghanistan and left the military in 2012.
The criminal complaint said that Faal, who had not lived in Gambia for 23 years, was approached by other conspirators in August.
Faal told the Federal Bureau of Investigation that all the plotters were of Gambian descent and most lived in the United States and Germany.
In the end, only 10 to 12 of the plotters entered Gambia, the first time they had met in person. The total number of conspirators, including those who didn’t make it to Gambia, was not disclosed. Njie bankrolled the coup effort and each of the men taking part was given $4,000 to pay expenses in Gambia.
Faal and two other men in the United States each bought eight M4 and AKM rifles, and about 30 weapons were shipped to Gambia. The group was also supplied with body armor, night vision goggles and other equipment.
The coup plotters allegedly planned to ambush Jammeh on a road, but decided to attack his palace instead when they found he would be out of the country after Dec. 26.
Once the palace was seized, Njie would try to persuade the head of the Gambian army to go along with the coup, the complaint said.
The conspirators expected palace guards to flee after they opened fire and a mutinous Gambian battalion to support them, according to the complaint.
But the guard detachment had been reinforced and opened up with heavy fire instead. Faal said all the members of one of the two attack teams were killed, and the other team fled.
Faal shed his equipment, crossed into neighboring Senegal and went to the U.S. Embassy in Dakar, the capital, where he was interviewed by American officials. He flew back to the United States and was questioned on his arrival at Washington’s Dulles International Airport by FBI agents.
A Federal Bureau of Investigation search of Faal’s Minnesota home turned up M4 manuals and receipts. Google satellite images of Gambia were found in a folder with the words “top secret” handwritten on top and underscored in black ink, the complaint said.
FBI agents who searched Njie’s residences in Austin and Lakeway, Texas, found handwritten documents, a spreadsheet for weapons and other equipment, and a document outlining transition plans for Gambia, the complaint said.
FBI agents took Njie into custody at Dulles airport on Saturday. He appeared in federal court in Baltimore for an initial hearing dressed in a blue shirt, jeans and sneakers.
“Yes, I do, your honor,” Njie replied when asked by U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephanie Gallagher if he understood the accusations. He will be transported to Minnesota to face charges. Faal appeared separately at a Minnesota court on Monday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
Government records show that Njie has 42 corporate affiliations, almost all for apartment complexes and retirement communities.
Reporting by Mark Hosenball and Susan Heavey; Writing by Ian Simpson; Additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington, John Clarke in Baltimore, and Jon Herskovitz in Austin.; Editing by Bill Trott, W Simon and Christian Plumb