American missionary held hostage for years in Niger released

Jeffery Woodke, a Christian humanitarian aid worker, was kidnapped in 2016.

March 20, 2023, 1:18 PM

An American missionary who was kidnapped in Niger has been released, U.S. officials said Monday.

Jeffery Woodke, a Christian humanitarian aid worker, was released on Monday after more than six years in captivity, the White House said.

"I'm gratified & relieved to see the release of U.S. hostage Jeff Woodke after over 6 years in captivity," U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan tweeted. "The U.S. thanks Niger for its help in bringing him home to all who miss & love him."

Woodke, who had been kidnapped in October 2016, was released outside of Niger, "in the Mali-Burkina" Faso area, according to a senior Biden administration official.

"Let me just start with some very good news this morning, and that is the release of Jeffery Woodke after more than six years in captivity," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday. "I want to thank the government of Niger, where I was just last week, for its important assistance in bringing him home."

"I have no higher priority or focus than bringing home any unjustly detained American, wherever that is in the world," he added.

Woodke had been captured by a hostage-taking network after working for years in the region, according to the official, who declined to say which specific terrorist organization had been holding the American.

"There are a number of kind of intersecting, overlapping terrorist networks in that part of West Africa that, unfortunately, see kidnapping and hostage-taking as part of their business model, frankly, and as a source of revenue and support for them," the official said. "And unfortunately, he has spent six-and-a-half years enduring that."

Woodke's wife, Els, told ABC News in 2020 that her family had come to believe that her husband had been held by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (IS-GS) to an al-Qaida affiliate in northwest Africa known as JNIM.

In a call with reporters, the official didn't say where Woodke was now, although a White House official said Woodke had been transferred to U.S. government custody.

The senior official said the U.S. didn't know where Woodke had actually been held over the years, and that officials hoped to learn more from Woodke himself.

The official declined to provide details of how Woodke was freed, deferring to Niger's government to provide more information. He noted Woodke would be offered an array of medical services, including psychiatric support.

While the official declined to provide details about how Woodke was released, he emphasized "there was no quid pro quo" with Woodke's captors.

"There was no direct negotiation here between the U.S. government and a terrorist organization," the official said. "It's worth making that clear. Certainly, we did not pay a ransom or make a concession to a terrorist organization here."

He credited Niger's government and said that the U.S. worked through Niger, which he said had "their own engagements."

Woodke's wife appeared in the 2021 ABC News documentary "3212 UN-REDACTED," which focused on an ill-fated U.S. Special Forces mission in 2017 that left four Green Beret soldiers dead.

A former commanding general of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) had claimed publicly that the mission had been tied to finding Woodke.

On Monday, the Biden administration official said the U.S. had invested intelligence and military resources over the years to find Woodke, who had worked for years helping nomadic people in the Sahel region.

"We owe a great deal of thanks to the government of Niger for its critical role in securing Jeff's release," the senior administration official said.

The official said the Woodke family had been notified first, the administration had also notified members of Congress, and the U.S. was notifying "foreign partners," as well.

ABC News' Matt Seyler contributed to this report.