Two Americans' Ridiculous Plot to Topple a 'Clinically Insane' African Dictator

The amateurish attempt to overthrow Jammeh was almost as bizarre as the Gambian leader himself.

Hours before dawn on December 30, 2014, gunfire erupted near the presidential palace in Banjul, the capital of The Gambia. For 20 years, the tiny West African country had been ruled by His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh , a portly strongman who came to power in a bloodless military coup. Now, a small group of conspirators—mostly former soldiers—were poised to launch a coup of their own.

Their original plan was to ambush the presidential motorcade. But the plotters learned that Jammeh was abroad (perhaps in Paris, but possibly in Dubai—no official explanation was given). The would-be putschists quickly hatched a new plan: fire their weapons at the State House, wait for the palace guard to surrender or flee, then walk in and take the reins of power.

Things quickly went awry for the conspirators. Rather than surrender or flee, the security forces returned fire, killing one of the plot leaders, retired Lieutenant Colonel Lamin Sanneh—a former State Guards commander and U.S. National Defense University graduate who also attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. Four of the coup plotters escaped to neighboring Guinea-Bissau while two others made it across the border into Senegal, where they sought refuge in the U.S. embassy. These latter two men, Cherno Njie and Papa Faal, were American citizens of Gambian dissent. Both had an unwelcome surprise waiting for them when they returned to the United States a few days later—federal agents had warrants for their arrest.

According to the criminal complaint filed in a Minnesota federal court, Njie and Faal conspired to violate the Neutrality Act of 1794, which outlaws “any [private] military or naval expedition or enterprise” directed against “the territory or dominion of any foreign prince or state . . .with whom the United States is at peace.” In 1981, prosecutors used the law against a band of Louisiana-based white supremacists planning to overthrow the Caribbean island nation of Dominica—the so-called Bayou of Pigs case. In 2007, the government accused an exiled Hmong leader of plotting to overthrow the communist regime in Laos (the Justice Department dropped the charges in 2009).

The conspiracy Njie and Faal stand accused of seems straight out of the pages of a Frederick Forsyth thriller. (Another murky coup plot in a different African country—the improbable “Wonga Coup” of 2004, which was aimed at overthrowing Equitorial Guinea’s tyrannical regime—was inspired by Forsyth’s classic, The Dogs of War.)

According to the criminal complaint, 57-year-old Njie, a respected Austin, Texas real-estate developer and life-long Republican (code name “Dave”) allegedly bankrolled the operation and aspired to serve as the post-coup “interim leader” of The Gambia. Faal, a 46-year-old U.S. Army veteran (code name “Fox”), was recruited into the conspiracy by Njie, according to the FBI. The two men, according to press reports, were motivated by a burning passion to remove Jammeh from power and restore The Gambia to democracy. In the words of one Gambian activist, Njie and Faal were driven to act by “the tyranny and barbarism that we have endured for these past 20 years . . . Everybody has a breaking point.”