American Aid Worker Held Hostage in Africa for 6 Years Freed: Top US Official

Lorenz Duchamps
By Lorenz Duchamps
March 20, 2023US News

A Biden administration official announced that Jeff Woodke, an American aid worker kidnapped in a West African country in 2016, has been freed after more than six years in captivity.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan confirmed the release in a statement on Twitter, saying he’s “gratified and relieved” to announce that Woodke has been freed. He credited the government of Niger and U.S. officials for helping to secure the 62-year-old’s freedom.

“I’m gratified & relieved to see the release of U.S. hostage Jeff Woodke after over six years in captivity,” Sullivan wrote in the post. “The U.S. thanks Niger for its help in bringing him home to all who miss & love him. I thank so many across our government who’ve worked tirelessly toward securing his freedom.”

Woodke was kidnapped in Abalak, a town in northern Niger, Africa, on Oct. 14, 2016, by armed men who forced their way into his home and killed his guards. The men then forced him into a small pickup truck at gunpoint and drove him north toward Mali’s border.

According to the missionary’s wife, Els Woodke, the long-time humanitarian aid worker had been assisting the Niger population for more than three decades.

NTD Photo
Els Woodke speaks about the 2016 kidnapping of her husband, Jeffrey Woodke, that occurred in West Africa during a news conference in Washington on Nov. 17, 2021. A photo of Jeffrey Woodke is seen on a video monitor in the background. (Cliff Owen/AP Photo)

Els said during a press briefing in 2021 that her husband’s captors demanded a multimillion-dollar ransom for his release. She also said that she believed her husband was in the custody of an Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group in West Africa known as JNIM.

“We believe that Jeff was kidnapped by the west African affiliate of ISIS and that he has been held by ISIS-GS for most of his captivity,” Els wrote in a statement released on a website dedicated to securing her husband’s release.

“According to multiple sources of information, we believe that at some point prior to the death of [ISIS-GS leader Abu] Walid, Jeff was moved from the custody of ISIS-GS to the custody of JNIM,” she said.

Today, a senior Biden administration official, who was not identified, described the release as the culmination of years of efforts. But, the official declined to say what exactly led to him being freed from captivity or where he is now.

The official noted that no ransom was paid, and no concession was made to the captors.

The U.S. government does not encourage ransom payments in hostage cases but has also made clear that prosecutors are not interested in charging relatives who choose to make such payments.

In a separate statement on Monday, Els said her husband is reportedly “in good condition” and revealed that the U.S. and Nigerian governments had “long suspected” that jihadists held him in the African region of Sahel.

“Els has not yet heard from Jeff but she has been told he is in good condition,” the statement reads. “She has expressed her profound thanks to the many people in governments and others around the world who have worked so hard to see this result. She praises God for answering the prayers of Christians everywhere who have prayed for this outcome.”

The Biden administration has not identified the specific group believed to be responsible for keeping Woodke in captivity but said there were several overlapping and intersecting hostage-holding networks in that part of Africa.

Though Woodke was taken in Niger, officials believe he had also been moved to Mali and Burkina Faso over the years.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.