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Kennedy School postdoc was planning a coup in his war-torn homeland but didn't realize his arms dealers were really federal agents, feds say

Ajak and Keech

Ajak (l) and Keech discuss overthrowing the South Sudanese government with arms dealers who were really federal agents. From federal affidavit.

A native of South Sudan who allegedly had dreams of moving from Harvard's Kennedy School to the presidency of his homeland was arrested on Monday on charges he and an accomplice were planning to export enough anti-tank missiles, grenade launchers, automatic rifles and ammunition to take over the beleaguered nation.

Peter Ajak, 40, most recently of Maryland, and Abraham Chol Keech, 44, of Utah, were formally charged in US District Court in Arizona with conspiracy to violate the Arms Export Control Act and the International Traffic in Arms regulations, conspiracy to violate the Export Control Reform Act and Export Administration regulations and attempting to smuggle goods from the US, according to court records. They could get up to 20 years on each of the first two charges and 10 years on the smuggling charge if convicted.

Ajak, who has a PhD from Cambridge and who previously taught at the National Defense University in Washington - and who spent two years in a South Sudanese prison for advocating for free elections - was a postdoctoral fellow at the Kennedy School's International Security Program in 2022 and 2023. Last month, the Kennedy School listed him as "Fellow, Middle East Initiative," but on Saturday morning, the school updated his bio page to read: "Fellow, Non-Resident (administrative leave)."

Ajak is not the first scholar from a Massachusetts school to be charged with trying to take over his homeland. In 1997, Bentley graduate, one-time Roxbury resident and former Liberian finance minister Charles Taylor became dictator of his native country, after helping foment a bloody civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone - and after breaking out of a jail in Plymouth.

According to an affidavit by a Homeland Security agent on the Ajak investigation, Ajak was planning on leading a coup in the South Sudan, which has been riven between rival factions since it won independence from Sudan in 2011.

He allegedly got a Florida businessman to put up more than $4 million for weapons - and even flew to Phoenix on Feb. 22 to take a look at some of the weapons, in particular the AK-47, helmet and armor he would carry and wear at the front of an attack out of Bor, a city where the armed struggle for South Sudanese independence began in 1983, possibly as early as March 30, according to the affidavit

Keech, Ajak, and PERSON-6 handled and inspected the weapons; Ajak, in particular, tried on the bulletproof vest and helmet procured by the UCs [undercover agents] and handled two different rifles, stating "I've gotta be leading from the front, not the back."

In an earlier phone conversation with one of the agents, Ajak allegedly said he was looking for a weapon that was "something really dependable and something that is easy and something that is pretty bad ass."

According to the affidavit, Ajak thought 1,170 rifles, ammunition, 100 grenade launchers, 500 regular grenades, 100 anti-tank grenades and three Stinger missiles, along with 20 phones and 50 walkie-talkies, would be enough to take over the country. It's a relatively small consignment as such things go, but then, South Sudan barely has a dozen functioning tanks.

The Florida businessman agreed to finance the coup in exchange for mineral rights in South Sudan once Ajak was in power, the affidavit states. The affidavit claims that in addition to Keech, Ajak was also working with a New York public-relations and marketing expert who once worked at the State Department, a "former military member" and three South Sudanese natives now living in the US.

From the start of their planning, allegedly in 2023, Ajak and Keech had two major problems. The first was that the UN Security Council has banned the export of weapons to South Sudan since 2018, a ban the US has complied with. Ajak's idea was to have the weapons shipped to an American military base in another, unidentified, African country, have them re-labeled as "humanitarian" supplies and then sent in a truck convoy to Bor, where he and South Sudanese loyal to him would burst forth and take control.

The second problem was one Ajak allegedly didn't know he had until he was arrested: The arms dealers who assembled the cache of weapons for Ajak and Keech in Phoenix to look over were federal agents investigating their plan - one from the Defense Department, the other from Homeland Security.

According to the affidavit, agents learned of Ajak's interest in overthrowing a government through a defendant in another, unrelated arms-export case, who had agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and investigator in exchange for a reduced sentence. That guy had gotten a series of texts from one of Ajak's alleged accomplices "to explore ways to obtain weapons for a South Sudanese political party and opposition group." The texts included "a list of various weapons and ammunition" needed by the opposition group.

The "cooperating defendant" turned the texts over to the agents, then introduced Ajak's alleged accomplice to a "close friend" who could help fill the order - who turned out to be one of the undercover agents, the affidavit states.

The early negotiations were between the agents and Keech - with opposition military leaders in South Sudan brought in on Zoom chats - the affidavit states, adding that throughout the process, the agents repeatedly told Keech and later Ajak that what they wanted to do was illegal - and risky, enough for them to demand a 20% premium over what they were planning to charge.

Keech eventually brought in Ajak - who in the meantime was informing the State Department he was planning to return to South Sudan, form his own party and run for election, oh, and he suggested the State Department try to convince the South Sudanese military "to withdraw its confidence in the President of South Sudan as part of a peaceful process for leadership change in South Sudan."

He never mentioned his planned coup and when State Department officials specifically told him they would never agree to helping a coup, he agreed, the affidavit states. The affidavit does not state how Ajak came to be talking to the State Department, but he had become something of the go-to guy on South Sudanese matters in the U.S.

Ajak finally chatted with the undercover agents, in an encrypted online videoconference on Nov. 8:

During the videoconference, Ajak explained to the UCs that he is looking for "basically a coup … with both internal and external fronts" against the current South Sudanese government, which he described as corrupt, illegitimate, and beholden to foreign interest groups. He said he wanted to "knock it over and rebuild a new country," and that he would be installed as the new "Prime Minister" and "head of the government." He added his new government would be recognized by the United States and he "[has] the backing of the State Department, implicitly."

During the video conference, Ajak stated he needed anti-tank weapons to disable the thirteen to fifteen functioning tanks in South Sudan. Ajak and Keech also asked the UCs about procuring anti-aircraft systems to disable the South Sudanese military's operational helicopters. They said they had a $100,000 budget for the purchase. UC-1 told Ajak and Keech there are sanctions in place prohibiting the sale of weapons to South Sudan and that their proposal was illegal. Keech responded, "[t]his issue of sanctions, don't worry about it." Ajak added that after the coup, the sanctions would be "lifted immediately," and Ajak was willing to execute a Memorandum of Understanding with the UCs "right now" to give the UCs the "assurance" that the UCs' company would be the official arms supplier to South Sudan after the regime change. UC-1 told Keech and Ajak to put together a list of approximately $75,000 worth of weapons - with an added $25,000 fee to account for the risk associated with the transaction—that would meet the buyers' $100,000 overall budget.

The two South Sudanese men and the two agents continued their online conferences and preparations, including Ajak meeting with his financier and that New York marketing guru at a New York lawyer's office and at a Manhattan condo. At one point, Ajak asked for a discount on the 20% premium - plus another $100,000 discount, because, he said, once he was in office, he would give the agents an exclusive - and legal - contract to sell arms to the South Sudanese government.

On Feb. 20, two days before the Phoenix meeting at which Ajak allegedly tried out body armor and AK-47, the first $225,000 payment was wired to the account the agents had set up for their arms "company."

During the meeting, the affidavit states, Ajak signed a contract with the agent's ostensible company and initialed a bogus invoice showing the weapons to be for humanitarian aid. He also allegedly told the agents:

Once we’re able to succeed, we will … sit down and negotiate a … multi-year contract, because we’re going to need to rebuild an Army and we’re in a really bad neighborhood.

On March 1, the agents told Ajak they had all the agreed-to weaponry ready in Phoenix for an inspection. Ajak agreed to fly out a week later for the inspection. Instead, he was arrested.

An early list of what Ajak was seeking, from the affidavit:

List of armaments and costs

Complete complaint and affidavit (2.4M PDF).

Innocent, etc.

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Comments

fascinating.

Are the "financier" and the other "PERSONs" acting as middlemen and agents going to get charged in this case?

Details are very shady on the "financier," presumably a rich guy.

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Yeah, just like in the book, the financier will walk.

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But they don't even have Excel over there? Wow.

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Maybe he doesn't have the technical expertise to secure his data and chose to avoid computers for "OPSEC". But I guess that concern didn't extend to vetting his arms dealers.

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He worried they would take his (well, the Florida guy's) money, then disappear. But they did an excellent job, it seems: He finally began to fully trust them after one of his associates spoke to him and said they were the real deal. Oops.

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For penmanship.

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Pretty much all you need to know about the Kennedy School is that they gave Steve Poftak a fellowship after he was booted from the T.

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Not "booted", I should say, since technically he did quit first.

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From the top of my head, I remember that Steve Bannon also got a MBA from Harvard Business School. He was the chief engineer of the 2016 Trump campaign and is still suprisingly influential these days with a MAGA podcast called War Room.

I've looked for a list of Harvard's most infamous graduates, but the closest thing I could find was written in the Crimson in 1927. Time for an update.

https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1927/6/20/infamous-sons-of-harvard-po...

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George W Bush, Class of 1975 - MBA Harvard Business School

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Ted Kaczynski ‘62, better known as the Unabomber, definitely needs to go on it.

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Murderer Amy Bishop got her PhD at Harvard. So did mass murderer Henry Kissinger (who also got his BA there).

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Braintree High grad. And she was an undergrad at Northeastern when she killed her brother at their home. Not our proudest alumna...

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MIT and Harvard share the blame for this one.

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Lots of bad people go to college. It does not follow from this that college makes people bad. Many terrible crimes have been committed by high-school dropouts, and even by people with no education at all. I suppose we could assert a rank order; if you went to college; your college is to blame; if you only got as far as high school, your high school is to blame; if you didn't even get that far, your parents are to blame. If you're an uneducated orphan, the stars are to blame.

"Fut! I should have been that I am had the maidenliest star of the firmament twinkled on my bastardy."

- Edmund, in King Lear

Myself, I'm a high school dropout with a college degree, so I have a lot of options.

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My grandfather, a student from Chelsea, class of 1933 with a Harvard BA and MBA 1935 or 1936.

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