Two U.S. citizens have been arrested on charges they conspired to aid last week's unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the government of Gambia, the U.S. Justice Department announced on Monday.
Cherno Njie, 57, and Papa Faal, 46, each face one count of conspiracy to violate the U.S. Neutrality Act and one count of conspiracy to possess a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence. They could face 25 years in prison if convicted.
Njie is scheduled for an initial court appearance in Baltimore, and Faal is set to appear in federal court in Minneapolis. They are charged with traveling separately to Gambia for Tuesday's coup attempt. They were arrested when they returned to the United States from the West African nation, officials said.
"These defendants stand accused of conspiring to carry out the violent overthrow of a foreign government, in violation of U.S. law," Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder said in a prepared statement announcing the arrests. "The United States strongly condemns such conspiracies. With these serious charges, the United States is committed to holding them fully responsible for their actions."
According to the criminal complaint and related documents in the case, Njie, of Austin, Texas, is a U.S. citizen of Gambian descent while Faal, of Brooklyn Center, Minn., holds dual U.S. and Gambia citizenship. Faal also reportedly served in the U.S. Air Force and Army, according to U.S. officials.
According to the documents, Faal told U.S. investigators after the coup attempt that Njie was one of the leaders and a main financier of the coup attempt and had planned to serve as interim leader of Gambia after overthrowing President Yahya Jammeh, who came to power in a 1994 military coup.
Last week's action was the third attempt in the last eight years to overthrow Jammeh, who has been criticized by human rights groups.
Faal told investigators that he was approached in August 2014, and asked to join with 10 to 12 others in a plan to overthrow Jammeh, the court filings say. Faal, who has family in Gambia, said he joined the effort because he "was disenchanted by the way 'the president was rigging elections' and because of his concerns for the 'plight of Gambian people,' " according to the documents.
From August to October, the group purchased multiple arms, including M4 semiautomatic rifles, and shipped them to Gambia for the coup attempt, the court documents say. The group also purchased night-vision goggles, body armor and ammunition as well as black military-style pants and boots, according to the complaint.
On Tuesday, the conspirators, including Faal, met in the woods near the home of the president in Banjul, the capital of Gambia, according to the documents. There, prosecutors say, they split into two assault teams, with Njie to wait in a safe place until the assault teams took control of the presidential home, called State House. But when one of the assault teams approached State House and fired a shot into the air, Gambian officials returned heavy fire from the guard towers.
Many of the conspirators were killed or injured during the failed attack. Faal told investigators that he fled the scene and Njie also escaped from his hideout, the court documents say. Faal was interviewed by U.S. officials in Dakar, Senegal then returned to the United States.
The Neutrality Act is designed to prevent people in the United States from staging attacks on countries with which the U.S. is at peace.