Calling off the mission would mean not only throwing away more than a year and a half of planning, but also failing those inside the regime whom Sanneh had persuaded to join the riskiest venture of their lives. More practically, Sanneh faced pressure from Cherno Njie, the would-be president, who, as a businessman rather than a soldier, was uncomfortable living among so many weapons and wanted to act quickly. In the afternoon, Sanneh summoned everyone else to his place. After midnight, he announced, they would attack the State House.
The rest of the men loaded their weapons and gear into two cars and headed into the capital. They made it past the Denton Bridge checkpoint before 7 p. With hours to kill, they drove aimlessly through the streets of Banjul, stopping for Coca-Cola, goat meat, and evening prayers.
Around 1 a. Sanneh announced two surprises. First, General Badjie was not at the State House, but more than 20 miles south, closer to the Senegalese border. Not to worry, he said. Soldiers were standing by at the State House and near the airport, ready to help seize power. With fewer men than expected, there would be no team Charlie.
As some of the men later recounted, Alpha and Bravo each got into a car and drove toward the State House—windows up, headlights off. When Alpha reached the outer entrance, everyone but Modou Njie got out of the car. Lowe raised his gun at two scared sentries at a guard post. Sanneh radioed the news to Bravo. Then Njie rammed the car through a series of barriers, getting deep inside the compound. The guard opened fire. Lowe knew him, and climbed up the tower to negotiate. But before he could persuade him to stand down, the guard fired his weapon again.
Lowe returned fire and retreated. Within moments, Lowe heard another shot—fired, he suspected, by the same guard—and watched as Sanneh crumpled to the ground. Lowe tried to drag his body to safety, but it was too heavy. The bullets were still coming.
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Before the car could stop, it started taking shots from a guard tower. He and Faal fired at the tower—Faal with one of the. It sure would be nice to have night-vision goggles , Faal thought to himself. Nyass drove the car toward the gate, intending to burst through it; a blast of gunfire from the tower stopped him.
As he climbed out of the car, he was met with a hail of bullets. Sarr, whose boot had been grazed and whose body armor had taken a direct shot, radioed Alpha to report that Nyass had been killed. He heard only static in response. He and Faal decided it was time to flee. Faal entered the courtyard of a hospital neighboring the State House, took off his vest, and laid his rifle next to a tree.
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He sliced off his cargo pockets with his knife to make his pants look less like combat gear, and crouched behind a concrete wall to wait for morning. Sarr jumped a fence and headed for the beach. Pretending to be a guard looking for the intruders, he pointed his rifle left and right as he ran.
He waded into the ocean to hide, later burying his weapons in the sand and escaping Banjul. On the other side of the State House, with Sanneh dead, the remnants of Alpha also decided to retreat. Modou Njie had become separated from the group. When Lowe reached him by cellphone, he said he had made it into the office of the commander of the State Guards. Everyone inside was confused. Lowe told him to come back to the outer gate.
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Lowe recognized the voice of the current commander of the State Guards. Thinking quickly, Lowe answered that rebel reinforcements had arrived and were waiting to slaughter anyone who left. The gambit bought him enough time to escape. He lost track of the others. Junior, he would later learn, also managed to get out safely. But Modou Njie was captured, and at some point during the chaos, Jagne was killed. Lowe hopped over the State House fence, stripped off his armor, and threw down his gun.
Troops were gathering on the nearby beach. He caught a taxi and instructed the driver to head across Denton Bridge. At the checkpoint, Lowe recognized some of the soldiers, but they seemed not to notice him. A small bribe to expedite the process, and the car was through.
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At another checkpoint, the police asked the driver to give a ride to a soldier. For the 10 miles the soldier was in the car, Lowe pretended to sleep in the backseat. Their radio had not picked up any signal from the group. But then they got a call from Lowe, informing them that the operation had been aborted. They tossed some weapons in their car and took a back road across the Senegalese border.
As they escaped, Barrow called Banka Manneh in Atlanta. It was the first Manneh had heard from him in some time. The day after the attack, the names of the dead began to circulate on online radio stations and on Facebook. She tried calling and texting Sanneh, and even logged in to his Verizon account to see his cellphone records.
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She turned to Manneh for help, knowing that he talked frequently with her husband. Hours after the attempted coup, Banjul awoke to a military lockdown. The streets crawled with soldiers moving from house to house in search of hidden attackers. New checkpoints appeared. Businesses closed. A fire truck was summoned to the State House to hose blood off the concrete. When Papa Faal, still hiding in the courtyard, heard the call to prayer, he approached a hospital visitor and persuaded him to swap clothes.
The regime was intact. Denton Bridge was shut down, as was a ferry that provided the only other way back to the mainland. Faal wandered around the city, trying not to make too much or too little eye contact with the soldiers he passed on the street. He wished he had the anti-anxiety pills he had been prescribed for post-traumatic stress disorder after he came back from Afghanistan. With the port still closed, he stayed the night at the house of a man he befriended at a mosque.
The next morning, the ferry started running again, and Faal took it to the north bank of the Gambia River before riding in shared taxis—at one point, like Lowe, seated next to a Gambian soldier—all the way back to Dakar.
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When other passengers gossiped about a terrorist attack in Banjul, he kept quiet. Frantic, he waved down a guard.
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They gave him a slice of pizza and a bottle of water as he told them everything. Had the Gambia Freedom League been betrayed? Papa Faal thought so. The tower that fired at Bravo team, he said, was staffed with more guards than usual.