American missionary held hostage for years in Niger speaks out in 1st televised interview

Jeff Woodke spoke to ABC News after being freed in March.

In his first television interview, an American missionary is revealing for the first time the full story of his capture by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists in Niger and how he managed to persevere through a harrowing 6 1/2 years as their prisoner.

Jeff Woodke, a worker with Youth with a Mission Relief and Development, was taken hostage from his residence in Abalak on Oct. 14, 2016. He was finally released in March.

Jeff and his wife, Els Woodke, are speaking with ABC News Chief National Correspondent Matt Gutman in an interview airing in full on Thursday night at 7 p.m. ET on ABC News Live Prime.

Jeff Woodke and his wife, Els Woodke, are seen in an exlusive interview with ABC News.
ABC News

On the night of his capture, Woodke says he was at his home when his civilian guard saw a vehicle drive up.

"He said, 'There's that vehicle.' In my peripheral vision came a rifle barrel and muzzle flash -- bright orange against a black background. All of a sudden, I hit the dirt and there were shots and I could hear people crying, dying," Woodke told ABC News.

Woodke says he tried to escape as the shots rang out, but didn’t make it very far.

"They got my shirt, but they didn't get me. And I kept running, you know, bare-chested. And they started hitting me with a rifle buttes trying to knock me down. They finally got me, they ruptured my Achilles, and that just, I was on the ground that was it," Woodke said.

Woodke says he couldn’t walk. His captors scooped him up and put him in a truck.

"They kept beating me in that truck, so I was a bloody mess and their truck was a bloody mess," Woodke said.

"I tried to say stop, but they just kept beating me. And I figured, 'Yeah, I hope the helicopters come and get us and blow up the truck because I don't want to be a hostage. They got me up into Mali, and I was lost," Woodke said.

At that point, Woodke says his thoughts turned to his family.

Jeff Woodke is seen alongside his family in Niger in this undated photo.
Courtesy of Jeff Woodke

"I don't want to put my family through this. Really? No, that's not good," Woodke said of his thinking at the time.

Woodke's wife says she learned of the kidnapping from a friend a few hours later.

"I always say it's like a bomb goes off in your life. And every part of your life is shattered and gone. I just fell apart. I think I must have screamed, 'No, no, no,' for hours," Els Woodke told ABC News.

Els says various government agencies and private hostage negotiators got in touch, grasping for more clues about her husband's whereabouts -- but to no avail. Still, Els didn't give up hope.

"At Jeff's birthday, I would plan tulips on his -- the amount of his years, and always trusting or hoping that he would see the bloom in the spring. So for me, I was never hopeless. How strange that sounds but I was never without hope," Els Woodke said.

All while her husband says his captors continued to torment him into submission.

"They broke my hope. I was in that box for two months, I disassociated numerous times. I thought I was dead. They hated me for being an American, for being a suspected security agent, for being a Christian, doing missions work, all those things," Woodke said.

As days turned into years, Woodke feared he'd never be free again and says he was chained to a tree in isolation for most of the time.

"I had to sleep under the tree at night, you can't see it's pitch dark and you hear these snakes hissing and hissing all around you and you don't know where they're at," Woodke said.

Jeff Woodke recounts his October 2016 capture in Niger in an exclusive interview alongside his wife, Els Woodke.
ABC News

Then one day shortly before his release, Woodke says he received a letter from "the big boss" that said, "In a week, you'll be with your family."

"I gave it back to the zone commander. I said, 'This is a lie.' And I was on a hunger strike. They took me away and gave me to another transport team. But these guys were hardcore. These guys were combat Mujahideen, and they were nasty," Woodke said.

Woodke says they arrived at a camp the next day where another hostage was being held -- French journalist Olivier Dubois, who was abducted in 2021 in northern Mali. Upon learning it was Dubois, Woodke says they both cried as they embraced each other.

"And then he said, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, Jeff, we're going out. We're going home. You can go ahead and eat,'" Woodke said.

The two men were recovered by French security forces on Niger's western border and the French put him on a plane home -- in a first-class seat, Woodke said.

Els says she was ecstatic to learn her husband was now free after six long years.

"I just jumped out of bed and all I said [was], 'It's over, it's over,'" Els Woodke said.

The White House has said little about the circumstances surrounding Woodke's release, only saying, "The United States did not pay ransom or make any other concessions" and that it was a "collaborative effort."

The French government has also not fully explained the conditions of the prisoners' release.

Still, Woodke applauds the Biden administration for helping to bring him home and asks that their efforts continue for the other Americans who remain wrongfully detained abroad.

"There's a lot of work that still needs to be done. And there's no excuse why our government should treat us like we're things, bargaining chips. Treat us with respect and bring us home," Woodke said.

Woodke says he has been recovering from the yearslong ordeal since his release in March. Although he's glad to be home, he says he is still healing and "learning how to become a human again."

Editor's Note: This copy previously incorrectly identified Jeff Woodke as a former USAID worker.