Jeffery Woodke was kidnapped by a group linked to the Islamic State. French journalist Olivier Dubois, kidnapped in 2021, has also been released.
Jeffery Woodke and Olivier Dubois arrived at the airport of Niamey, the capital of Niger, where they were received by Niger’s interior minister, Hamadou Souley.
“The hostages were picked up safe and sound by the Nigerien authorities before being handed over to the French and American authorities”, confirmed Souley.
Woodke was abducted from his residence in Abalak, Niger, on 14 October 2016. Men drove up to his house in the early afternoon in a small pick-up truck, killed Jeff's two guards, and forced him into the truck at gunpoint.
His neighbours followed the truck for some time, but he was last seen driving north towards the Malian border at night.
“I’m gratified & relieved to see the release of U.S. hostage Jeff Woodke after over 6 years in captivity. 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”, said US National Security advisor, Jake Sullivan on twitter.
A senior administration official told reporters that they “are working closely with partners in the region and beyond to ensure safe transport and immediate access to the best medical and psychiatric support we can offer”.
He also stressed that the US government has been working to secure Woodke's release for years, drawing on both intelligence and military resources, but ultimately the Niger government was key to his release.
Terrorist groups linked to Al Qaeda and Islamic State have been active in Niger for years.
The official did not say which specific terrorist group held Woodke, but mentioned a number of “intersecting overlapping terrorist networks in that part of West Africa”. He added that these terrorist networks see “kidnapping and hostage-taking as part of their business model, and as a source of revenue and support”.
However, “there was no direct negotiation here between the US government and the terrorist organizations, it is worth making that clear. Certainly, we did not pay a ransom a concession to a terrorist organization here”.
Woodke is now 62 and a resident of McKinleyville, CA. He was born in Fremont, CA. He has been a missionary and aid worker in Niger for 32 years.
He is married to Cornelia Molenaar for over 30 years and they have two adult children. He earned a BS in Wildlife Biology and an MS in International Development, both from Humboldt State University.
Woodke worked with the aid organisation Jeunesse En Mission Entraide et Developpement (JEMED), an affiliate of Youth With A Mission (YWAM-JCUM). Since 1990, he has been working with Tuareg and Fulani herdsmen in the Abalak region of West Africa.
In 2009, Jeff, as part of JEMED, won a Sasakawa Award from the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) Secretariat for his work in Disaster Risk Reduction.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Niger recently and announced a $150 million investment in humanitarian aid for the Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Mauritania.
“It will help provide life-saving support to refugees, asylum seekers and others affected by conflict and food insecurity in the region", pointed out Blinken in a statement.
In addition to Woodke's release, French journalist Olivier Dubois, kidnapped in 2021 in Mali, was also freed on Monday, according to a tweet from French President Emmanuel Macron.
“I have just spoken to Olivier Dubois: he is in good health. It is a great relief for the nation, for his family and his fellow journalists. We are very grateful to Niger for this release", he wrote.
Je viens d’échanger avec Olivier Dubois : il est en bonne santé. Soulagement immense pour la Nation, pour ses proches et ses confrères journalistes. Grande reconnaissance au Niger pour cette libération. https://t.co/MfocFXyVFp
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) March 20, 2023
Dubois was kidnapped in the Gao region of northern Mali by an al-Qaida-linked group known as GSIM.
“I feel tired but I'm fine. It's huge for me to be here, to be free, I wanted to pay tribute to Niger for its expertise in this delicate mission and pay tribute to France and all those who have allowed me to be here today", he said as he got off the plane.
According to a statement of Reporters Without Borders (RWB), “his captivity was the longest for a French journalist held hostage since the Lebanon war”.
“We thank the French authorities for having implemented the necessary means to obtain his release. It is the honour of France not to let the hostages down and to allow them to regain their freedom”, added the RWB statement.