NAIROBI, Kenya — Last weekend, American Green Berets were training local forces in the West African country of Guinea when their charges were pulled away for a mission not listed in any military training manual: They staged a coup.
Gunshots rang out early Sunday as an elite Guinean Special Forces unit stormed the presidential palace in Conakry, deposing the country’s 83-year-old president, Alpha Condé. A charismatic young officer, Col. Mamady Doumbouya, announced himself as Guinea’s new leader hours later.
The Americans were well acquainted with him.
A team of about a dozen Green Berets had been in Guinea since mid-July, training about 100 soldiers in a special forces unit led by Colonel Doumbouya, who had served in the French Foreign Legion for years, participated in American military exercises, and was once a close ally of the president he deposed.
The US, like the UN and the African Union, has condemned the coup, and the US military has denied having any advance knowledge of it.
It is, however, an embarrassment for the Pentagon. The US has trained troops in many African countries, primarily for counterterrorism programmes but also with the broad goal of assisting civilian-led governments.
Although numerous U.S.-trained officers have seized power in their respective countries, most notably Egypt’s Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, this is believed to be the first time one has done so while enrolled in an American military course.
When the Green Berets realised a coup was underway on Sunday, they drove straight to the US Embassy in Conakry, and the training programme was suspended, according to Kelly Cahalan, a spokeswoman for the US Africa Command. According to her, the coup is “inconsistent with U.S. military training and education.”
American officials seeking to minimise the incident initially emphasised that the training base was in Forécariah, a four-hour drive from the presidential palace and close to Guinea’s border with Sierra Leone.
However, US officials said on Friday that they were looking into reports that Colonel Doumbouya and his fellow coup-makers had left in an armed convoy from the same base early on Sunday, raising the possibility that they slipped away while their instructors were sleeping.
“We have no information on how the apparent military seizure of power occurred, and we had no prior indication of these events,” said Bardha S. Azari, a spokeswoman for the United States Africa Command, in an email.
The coup in Guinea, the fourth military takeover in West Africa in a year, fueled fears of democratic backsliding in a coup-prone region of Africa, following two coups in Mali and a disputed succession in Chad.
The discomfort of US officials over their proximity to the coup plotters was exacerbated in recent days by video footage circulating that showed smiling American military officers in a crowd of joyous Guineans on Sept. 5, the day of the coup.
One American appears to shake hands with cheering people as a four-wheel-drive vehicle with Guinean soldiers perched on the back pushes through the crowd chanting “Freedom.”
“If the Americans are involved in the putsch, it is because of their mining interests,” Diapharou Baldé, a Conakry teacher, explained, referring to Guinea’s vast deposits of gold, iron ore, and bauxite, which is used to make aluminium.
Officials in the United States confirmed that the video showed Green Berets returning to the United States Embassy on Sunday, but denied that it implied support for the coup. “The United States government and military are not involved in any way in this apparent military seizure of power,” Ms. Azari, the spokeswoman, said.
For many Guineans, the Americans’ cameo role in the coup was just one aspect of a week of dizzying change led by Colonel Doumbouya, 41, now Africa’s second-youngest leader.
The youngest is in neighbouring Mali, where Col. Assimi Gota only took power in May, following a coup as well.
Colonel Doumbouya appeared on state television wearing sunglasses and draped in Guinea’s tricolour flag after an hour-long gun battle outside the presidential palace on Sunday, according to Guinean and Western officials.
He claimed he was forced to seize power as a result of President Condé’s actions. Condé, a one-time democracy campaigner, was elected president in 2010 after an earlier coup paved the way for elections.
Mr. Condé’s legitimacy, however, plummeted last year after he amended the constitution to allow him to run for a third term, which he won. According to Amnesty International, over 400 political opponents were thrown into Guinea’s squalid prisons after the election, where at least four died.
Following the coup, footage circulated of a dishevelled Mr. Condé, surrounded by soldiers, slouched on a sofa and looking dejected. Colonel Doumbouya has refused to reveal his whereabouts, despite the fact that envoys from West Africa’s main political and economic bloc met with Mr. Condé on Friday and reported that he was in good health.
The president has been deposed by an officer whose career he once supported.
Colonel Doumbouya came to public attention in October 2018 during Guinea’s 60th anniversary of independence celebrations, when he paraded the country’s newly formed Special Forces unit through central Conakry. Images from the parade quickly spread on Guinean social media.
“People were very impressed by the soldiers’ choreography and the synchronised movement of their vehicles,” said Issaka K. Souaré, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s Sahel and West Africa programme.
In a 2018 interview, Mr. Condé lavished praise on the young officer, who is also a member of the Malinke tribe. According to his official biography, Colonel Doumbouya served as a French Legionnaire in Afghanistan and Ivory Coast, as well as completing a commando training course in Israel.
He is a French citizen who is married to a French military police officer and has a degree in defence studies from a Parisian university.
Although public dissatisfaction with Mr. Condé fueled the coup, it was also fueled by smouldering rivalries within Guinea’s defence establishment, according to a Western official and an analyst who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Colonel Doumbouya and Guinea’s defence minister, Mohamed Diané, were said to be at odds. Mr. Diané relocated the Special Forces unit to Forécariah, fearing a putsch in the capital.
Colonel Doumbouya publicly complained about his unit’s lack of resources.
Colonel Doumbouya has been known to American officials since the beginning of his rise. A photo posted on the US Embassy’s Facebook page in October 2018 showed him standing outside the US Embassy with three American military officials.
However, American officials said on Friday that they were perplexed as to why he would choose to stage a coup at a time when he was collaborating closely with Americans.
It is not the first time that African coups have cast a pall over American training programmes on the continent. As insurgents swept across Mali’s northern desert in 2012, US-trained commanders of the country’s elite army units defected at a critical juncture, taking troops, trucks, weapons, and their newly acquired skills to the enemy.