Abducted American aid worker Jeff Woodke has been released after six-and-a-half years in captivity. Jeff was kidnapped from his home in Abalak, northern Niger, in October 2016. His captors were thought to be members of a local radical Islamic group called Mujao.
The aid worker wasfreed outside of Niger, in a border area with Mali and Burkina Faso, a US official told The New York Times. He was then moved to Niger’s capital Niamey for medical checks. The kidnappers reportedly took him out of Niger to eastern Mali. Since then, it appears he was moved across borders to other nations on multiple occasions.
“This is such wonderful news and a big relief for Jeff and for all who were praying for him,” says Illia Djadi senior analyst for sub-Saharan Africa for the charity Open Doors. “We have been praying and advocating for the release of Jeff for years. It’s the end of over six years of suffering, and agony for him and his family.”
His wife, Els Woodke, was told that Jeff was “in good condition,” according to a statement on a the website Bring Jeffery Woodke Home. “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.” From security briefings by US senior officials, it was not clear which group had been holding Woodke since his abduction. However, one senior official said no ransom or other conditions were part of his release, according to the New York Times.
“Personally, it’s hard to imagine this release happened without some benefit to his captors, but I hope that’s not the case,” saids Illia. “Paying ransom can strengthen the capacity of terrorists and jihadists and expose people to more kidnappings.”
Woodke had been living in the region since 1992. He ran several development projects among the Tuareg people. His abduction shocked the community in his hometown in Niger.
“He lived among us for years, even when it has been difficult to accompany vulnerable populations…
everyone knows his goodness,” said Abalak’s Mayor Bilou Mohamed.
In July 2017 a coalition of jihadist groups published a video showing six foreign hostages, including three missionaries, but not Jeff. Believing her husband was likely to be held by the same group, Els put out a video pleading with the kidnappers to let her husband go. Woodke’s release comes amidst a surge of violence by militant Islamists and other groups in the Sahel region. Deaths from violent attacks by Islamist groups have increased by almost 50 per cent over the past year, with the bulk of attacks taking place in Burkina Faso and Mali, according to a report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
This week the charity UNICEF has stated that more than 10 million children are in need of humanitarian assistance in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger due to growing insecurity in the region.