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World

Latest Attempted Coup In Gambia Began On U.S. Soil

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The story of the most recent coup in the West African country of Gambia starts on U.S. soil. Gambians living in Texas, Maryland and Minnesota helped orchestrate it. The plot involved night vision goggles, smuggled rifles and a copy of the book "How To Stage A Military Coup: From Planning To Execution," and it was not successful. The plot failed in an ambush at the palace doors of the Gambian president, and now the U.S. Justice Department is charging some of the people involved. Adam Goldman is the terrorism and national security reporter for The Washington Post. He's written about this and is here to talk more. Welcome to the program.

ADAM GOLDMAN: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Describe the people involved. I mentioned them living in states around the country. I mean, were they intending to go back and rule Gambia?

GOLDMAN: Yes, they were intending to go back and rule Gambia. What kind of government they were going to form is unclear. But some of them were U.S. military veterans. One was a captain with the Kentucky Army National Guard who moved to the United States two decades ago from Gambia. And there was even one who used to run the presidential guard in Gambia who was living in Maryland.

CORNISH: So what was their actual plan? How did they plan to do this?

GOLDMAN: Well, essentially, they planned to take the presidential palace, dividing it up into two teams while the ruler was away. But when they assaulted the palace, they found it was heavily guarded, and they had been ambushed.

CORNISH: How was the U.S. government involved?

GOLDMAN: The FBI was monitoring the social media of one of the individuals named Sanneh. And Sanneh is the man who ran the presidential guard in Gambia who actually came to the United States. He fled Gambia. And I guess he was on social media espousing certain views about overthrowing the government in Gambia. And once he bought a ticket to go to Gambia, the FBI went to his house. And they interviewed him, and they asked him, what are you doing? And he said that he was going to visit family. It was a really interesting situation for the FBI because you can talk about overthrowing a government. That's First-Amendment-protected speech. What the FBI didn't have was the smoking gun. They didn't have him actually plotting, buying weapons, trying to carry this thing out.

CORNISH: In your reporting, you say that the U.S. government actually tipped off West African authorities, not Gambia directly. Why is that? I mean, what's our relationship there?

GOLDMAN: Well, the government felt if they had tipped off the Gambia, the country might've reacted and starting sweeping up U.S. citizens or persons with U.S. status, potentially putting them in harm's way. So they government was in a real dilemma here, right? They knew this guy was going over there. They suspected he was likely going to be involved in a coup. They didn't have evidence of it but obviously was interested. The U.S. government was interested in preventing any bloodshed, so they tipped off another country they felt that might stop this individual, Sanneh, and perhaps slow him down or dissuade them from carrying out this coup.

CORNISH: I mentioned these men having, like, a copy of this book "How To Stage A Military Coup," which doesn't speak to them being pros. And I'm wondering kind of what surprised you about how this plot kind of moved forward.

GOLDMAN: Well, what surprised me about this plot is they were all able to basically conspire and communicate and do this, you know, under the nose of the U.S. government and pull it off. I mean, they actually did manage to ship all the equipment over there, gather there and mount this coup. That, in itself, is surprising. Were they competent? Well, the coup failed, so I guess you could say no.

CORNISH: Help us understand what happens now. The Justice Department has actually charged four men in this case somehow - right? - under what's called the Neutrality Act of 1794.

GOLDMAN: Right, so (laughter) the rarely used Neutrality Act of 1794 basically says that you can't meddle in the affairs of another country, in terms of plotting a coup, if they're a country at peace, and that's where the Gambia was. Three of the accused plotters escaped and made their way back to the U.S. And within days of their return, the FBI arrested them. So this could actually go to trial, which will be fascinating.

CORNISH: Adam Goldman - his article, reported with Craig Whitlock, is called "How A Reviled African Ruler Survived A Coup Hatched In The United States." It originally appeared in The Washington Post. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

GOLDMAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.