When a group of naturalized Americans from The Gambia tried to help overthrow the government of their West African homeland in 2014, they thought they would be hailed as heroes. Not only did they fail, they were charged in the United States under the Neutrality Act—a little-known federal law that prohibits Americans from waging war against friendly nations.
Two Americans were killed in the failed coup on December 30, 2014. The next day, distraught Gambian-American Papa Faal entered the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Senegal.
“He said, ‘I need to get back to the United States. The Gambians are looking for me,’” said Special Agent Jeffrey Van Nest from the FBI’s Minneapolis Field Office. “When embassy staff asked why, Faal said he was part of the attempted coup. That’s when we got involved.”
Embassy staff immediately notified the legal attaché—the FBI special agent assigned to the U.S. Embassy. The legal attaché interviewed Faal, quickly determined there was a possible violation of the Neutrality Act, and notified the Department of Justice and the FBI office in Faal’s hometown of Minneapolis; Van Nest was the squad supervisor over the investigation.
Faal’s cooperation led to conspirators in other U.S. states, requiring involvement from FBI field offices in Atlanta, Baltimore, Charlotte, Louisville, Memphis, San Antonio, and Seattle. Agents also traveled to The Gambia, Senegal, and Germany. The FBI coordinated with other federal agencies, including the Department of State; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command.
FBI agents interviewed subjects, searched their computers, and reviewed financial, travel, and phone records. The evidence helped agents piece together the conspiracy.
Members of the Gambian diaspora who had formed the Gambia Freedom League hatched the plan in 2012 to overthrow then-President Yahya Jammeh. The group included Gambians living in America, Europe, and Africa. Cherno Njie, a naturalized American who lived in Texas, planned to serve as the interim leader in The Gambia.
Njie also financed much of the operation and arranged for another conspirator to buy weapons for the coup. Njie kept meticulous financial records showing how much he paid for ammunition and weapons, as well as their serial numbers. The weapons were smuggled into The Gambia hidden by clothes inside 55-gallon barrels.
The attack plan, developed by a co-conspirator with U.S. military experience, had coup members meet at safe houses in The Gambia. Two teams—one of six men and one of four—armed with the smuggled weapons and wearing military gear, attacked the Gambian State House.
Gambian soldiers killed several of the attackers, including two Americans; others escaped or were captured. Security forces also collected numerous weapons and military equipment.
As part of the investigation, FBI agents from Minneapolis received permission to travel to The Gambia to look at the evidence—and the bodies of the two Americans killed in the attack.
The trip into The Gambia was tense because President Jammeh initially believed the U.S. military was behind the attack. Gambian military and intelligence officials escorted FBI agents during the visit.
Agents identified more than 20 weapons purchased by Americans using money Njie provided. They also examined the cars used in the attack as well as the safe houses, and they took DNA samples from the two dead Americans.
The FBI has investigated only a handful of violations of the Neutrality Act. Despite the investigative complications—with numerous conspirators acting in several states and overseas—agents knew just how to proceed.
“The steps in these investigations are the same as for most cases, said Special Agent Margaret Thill, who also worked the case from the FBI’s Minneapolis office. “You have a potential violation, you gather evidence, you build rapport with witnesses to elicit cooperation and information, and you work closely with the assistant U.S. Attorney who is prosecuting the case.”
Five men ended up pleading guilty in the case: four were sentenced in 2016 on counts relating to the Neutrality Act, and a fifth was sentenced in March 2017 for buying weapons. None was sentenced to more than a year and a day in prison.
Short sentences notwithstanding, the successful investigation delivered several important messages, Van Nest said. “Rapid identification, arrest, and guilty pleas of those responsible ensured continued safety and security of American diplomatic personnel posted to the region,” he explained. “More importantly, the U.S. government capably reinforced accountability to the rule of law in a part of the world which has been cursed by cyclical violence between warring factions for generations.”
Admittedly, Andrew Luger was not entirely clear why he was part of a conference call on New Year’s Day, 2015: He was speaking with his national security prosecutor, FBI agents from across the nation and globe, and representatives from the Department of State.
“I said, ‘You’re going to have to pardon me. This is my first coup—what’s the crime? What exactly did these people do that violated U.S. federal law?’” said Luger, the former U.S. attorney for District of Minnesota. “And someone said, ‘The Neutrality Act.”
The Neutrality Act was enacted in 1794 and amended several times. The relevant provision—which prohibits American citizens from essentially waging war against a nation that is at peace with the United States—has been prosecuted fewer than five times.
One of the first tasks was to verify that the attack was not a covert operation launched or approved by the U.S. government. The Department of State verified it was neither.
“Then it became a matter of the FBI coordinating,” Luger said. “We needed to do a lot of things right away. There was evidence to be gathered, people to interview.”
It was up to Luger’s office to make sure the FBI could prove that those charged had actually violated the law. The prosecution was further complicated because the conspirators all lived in different cities, requiring the involvement of numerous FBI field offices.
The Department of Justice decided the FBI’s Minneapolis Field Office would have the lead, with other offices assisting. Luger prosecuted.
“I was astounded at how many FBI people jumped on the need to act on a case that wasn’t going to be their case,” Luger said. “From the FBI perspective, this was purely, ‘We’re going to do the right thing for the people.’ It was about law enforcement at its best.”
When prosecuting a case, the stronger the evidence the better. But Luger said he was shocked when the FBI showed him a printout recovered at the home of Cherno Njie, a conspirator who lived in Texas.
“He was going to be the new prime minister,” Luger said. “He had written a speech, and the FBI found it.”
Prosecutors had a strong case against the conspirators based on other physical evidence as well as phone, computer, and financial records. All five men charged eventually pleaded guilty. The longest sentence was one year and one day.
“When you have a statute that’s used rarely, you wonder what an appropriate sentence is,” Luger said. “So why was it important? Why did we put resources into it? Because it was a crime, and one that involved shipping weapons overseas and committing violence.”
Looking back on his career, the case remains one of Luger’s favorites. “It was so different and novel. It was international and national. And it happened on New Year’s,” he said.