For those of us lucky enough to live in democracies, it is comforting to imagine foreign dictators as wholly foreign. The world seems less complicated when an autocrat fits the stereotype: say, wearing a leopard-skin hat and rarely stepping out of some jungle palace. Anyone fine with ruling undemocratically, one might like to think, should have no interest in a culture completely opposed to the practice. Or, at the very least, if such a leader did make meaningful connections with the West, surely his retrograde beliefs would melt away on contact.Reality, alas, is not so tidy. Bashar al-Assad butchers Syrians despite having lived in London. Whatever Western values Kim Jong Un picked up at boarding school in Switzerland haven’t kept him from perpetuating North Korea’s totalitarian state. And, as I discovered while reporting on the Gambia, the authoritarian leader of this tiny West African country has a soft spot for the United States.

That leader, Yahya Jammeh, launched a bloodless coup in 1994, ousting the Gambia’s democratically elected president and instituting military rule. In the two decades since, as the rest of West Africa has grown more democratic and developed, Jammeh has taken his country in the opposite direction, routinely harassing and detaining political activists. A paramilitary group called the “Junglers,” according to Human Rights Watch, has assassinated Jammeh’s opponents, sometimes dumping their bodies in an abandoned well near the president’s hometown. One alleged target was Deyda Hydara, the editor of an independent newspaper, who was shot dead on his way home from work in 2004.

When Jammeh took power, he was a 29-year-old lieutenant, fresh off four months of military-police training at Fort McClellan, Alabama. According to a childhood friend of his, it was there that Jammeh gained an affection for all things American. He befriended an officer at the base, Major Fouad Aide, whom he took to calling his “American father.” After the coup, Jammeh invited Aide to the Gambia. In a photo taken at Jammeh’s personal zoo during one of Aide’s visits, the president is wearing not his usual Islamic getup of a flowing gown but American hip-hop casual: chunky black boots, baggy jeans, and a denim jacket to match.

What does this dictator really think about the United States? On the one hand, Jammeh encases his rule in a pan-African, anti-Western veneer, and has frequent spats with Washington. In 2006, for example, Jammeh was furious that his country was suspended from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. foreign-aid program, on account of its human-rights record. In a meeting with a British diplomat afterward, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, Jammeh also insinuated that the United States had supported a failed coup attempt that year. Barry Wells, the U.S. ambassador to the Gambia from 2007 to 2010, told me that Jammeh could quickly turn spiteful. “When you were on the outs with him, not only would he not meet with you, you couldn’t get a meeting with any minister,” he said.Click here to continue reading