WASHINGTON (AP) — Two men — including one from Austin — have been charged in the United States with conspiring to help overthrow the government of the tiny 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 violating 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 Minnesota, told investigators that in August he joined 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 Gambian government 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 he joined was composed of men of Gambian descent who primarily lived in the U.S. and Germany and mostly had military experiences, according to an FBI agent’s affidavit. As part of the preparations, he purchased semi-automatic rifles in Minnesota that were then shipped by cargo ship to Gambia, authorities say.
The group hoped to take control of the government without having to kill Gambians, and though its members initially planned on ambushing the president’s convoy, they changed plans once the leader left the country and decided instead to attack the Gambian State House, court papers allege.
After members of the group were defeated at the State House, Faal escaped by ferry to neighboring Senegal, where he walked into the U.S. Embassy.
He was interviewed by U.S. officials and gave the FBI permission to search his home in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, authorities 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.
At a brief hearing in federal court in Minneapolis, Faal said he was an instructor at a Minneapolis-area technical institute, paid about $4,500 a quarter. He also described himself as an Army veteran who receives disability payments for an injury he didn’t specify. He was ordered Faal to remain in custody pending another hearing Thursday.
Prosecutors allege that Faal identified Njie, a 57-year-old citizen of Gambian descent who lives in Austin, as one of the financiers and leaders of the coup. Njie was arrested Saturday after flying into Dulles International Airport from Senegal. At a court appearance in Baltimore on Monday, he agreed to remain in custody and be transported to Minnesota to face charges.
One supporter, 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. Calls to the corporate office were not returned.
Emily Schmall in Fort Worth, Texas, Juliet Linderman in Baltimore, Rhonda Shafner in New York and Kia Farhang in Minneapolis, Minnesota contributed to this report.
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