Yahya Jammeh, president of Gambia © AFP

Code names, conspiracies and a dead of the night attack on an African president. It may sound like the plot of a low-budget Hollywood film, but it happened in real life in Gambia, a tiny and poor nation in west Africa.

A small group of Americans with eight M4 semi-automatic rifles, two pairs of night vision goggles and black military style uniforms, allegedly decided to overthrow Yahya Jammeh, the authoritarian and eccentric president of the smallest country on the African mainland. Google Maps satellite images, with written notes signalling “guard” posts, were their main intelligence asset. A manifesto titled, “A Charter Transition from Dictatorship to Democracy” inspired them.

Their budget was, however, that of a low-budget thriller, not a Hollywood blockbuster. The gang allegedly numbered 18-20 people and spent $220,798 on the attack, including $4,000 on two sniper “Barret” .50 calibre rifles that the accountant who compiled their expenses said were “not really necessary, but could be very useful”. Each man had $4,000 to cover costs while they were in Gambia.

But the coup attempt failed and this week, US federal prosecutors charged a Texas businessman with conspiring with a former US Army sergeant and others to orchestrate an attack in Gambia on the last two days of 2014.

The attack echoes a bygone era in Africa when mercenaries tried to overthrow governments in small African countries. The last such attack happened more than a decade ago. In 2004, Mark Thatcher, the son of the late UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, received a suspended sentence in South Africa for his role in a coup attempt against the government of Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea. But it was Bob Denard, a former French soldier and mercenary, who for years epitomised the soldier-of-fortune-led coup in small corners of Africa. In the Comoros Island alone, he led four attempts between 1975 and 1995 — two of them were successful.

The leaders of the alleged gang in Gambia did not have the pedigree of Denard, however. US authorities accuse Cherno Njie, a 57-year-old US citizen of Gambian descent who made a small fortune in the housing industry in Texas, of bankrolling the coup. Mr Njie, who expected to become president, and Papa Faal, a 46-year-old former US sergeant, face charges of violating the US Neutrality Act by “conspiring to make an expedition against a friendly nation” and another count of conspiracy to possess a firearm, according to a criminal complaint filed in Minnesota. Nr Njie and Mr Faal could not be reached for comment. Gambian officials have publicly blamed Mr Faal, Lamin Sanneh, an exiled former head of the presidential guard, and seven others for the attack.

What might have led Mr Njie to organise the coup, as alleged, is unclear. Ebrima Sankareh, editor in chief of the The Gambian Echo & Tribune, a newspaper for the Gambian diaspora in the US, describes him as “a very quiet and serious fellow with a very sharp intellect, unassuming, attentive, calm and calculating, but equally shrewd”. In a profile about him published in November, he described Mr Njie as having a “penchant for . . . political discourse”.

Mr Faal’s possible motivations are even less clear. But an author with the same name and the same military background, self-published a book A Week Of Hell two years ago about Gambia’s coup of 1981.

Preparations began in August, when Mr Njie allegedly started recruiting men for his plan, according to a US criminal complaint. On December 3, a small group of about 10-12 men flew via South African Airways to Dakar in Senegal and from there they made their way overland to Gambia.

A spreadsheet seized by the FBI appears to depict the prices of various weapons and logistical support
A spreadsheet seized by the FBI appears to depict the prices of various weapons and logistical support

They planned to ambush the president and convince the head of the Gambian army to “stand down and support the change in leadership”, it is alleged. Gambia’s poorly equipped army numbers fewer than 3,000 soldiers.

“They hoped the president would surrender, but were willing to shoot him if he fired at them,” Nicholas Marshall, an FBI special agent, said in an affidavit. But the president never got the chance to surrender — he had left the country to celebrate New Year.

As in other mercenary-led coups in Africa, the target was a dictator. Mr Jammeh has run Gambia with an iron fist since he seized power in a coup more than two decades ago. He is known for his authoritarian rule and eccentric beliefs. In 2007, he claimed that he had found herbal cures for HIV and personally administered his treatment to patients. The following year he vowed to execute any gay person discovered in Gambia. In 2013, Gambia pulled out of the Commonwealth, the organisation that groups together mostly former territories of the British empire, following criticism over the country’s human rights record. Mr Jammeh called it “neocolonial”.

With Mr Jammeh out of the country, the conspirators opted for a different plan. They split into two teams, codenamed “Alpha” and “Bravo”, and hid in the woods near the palace. In rented cars, they approached State House. But, instead of fleeing, the soldiers responded with heavy fire. Within minutes, the members of the Alpha team were dead while the Bravo group had run for safety. The 160 members of the Gambian army who supposedly agreed to support the coup never showed up.

Mr Faal told the FBI that he “fled the scene and took refuge in a nearby building, removed his body armour, boots and military-style clothing and changed into clothes obtained from a man in the building”. Within days, he had surrendered himself to the US authorities in the embassy in Dakar. He apparently identified Mr Njie in a photograph shown to him by US investigators.

Among the documents were also annotated Google satellite images of where the attempted coup took place

When the FBI searched houses owned by Mr Njie in Lakeway and Austin, Texas, they found a document describing what appears to be his vision for Gambia. Handwritten notes contained the following questions: “Do you have a budget?”, “How many troops do you have?”, “What is your plan after a takeover?” and, finally, “What is the transition period for a return to civilian rule?”

In the end, Mr Njie did not need an answer to the final question — Mr Jammeh remains in power. This week, the president-cum-dictator responded to the coup by firing several ministers. “This was not a coup. This was an attack by a terrorist group backed by some powers,” he said.

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