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US citizen freed after being held hostage 6 years in Nigeria

Lance Cpl. Derek Burt of Lyons, Neb., observes the area during a riverine training operation October 18, 2013. (Official U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Marco Mancha)
March 20, 2023

An American aid worker held hostage in West Africa was released on Monday, more than six years after terrorists captured him in Niger.

Announcing the release of the aid worker, Jeffery Woodke, on Twitter, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said he was “gratified and relieved.”

“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,” Sullivan said.

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Woodke, a longtime Niger aid worker, was captured and taken toward the Mali border in 2016 after gunmen raided his house, killing two other people, as reported by the Associated Press. 

His wife, Els, told the New York Times that he is “safe” and in “great spirits.” The 62-year-old Woodke is reportedly now being medically evaluated in Niger’s capital, Niamey.

A senior administration official did not specify which terror group held Woodke, alluding only to “intersecting overlapping terrorist networks” in the region that view “kidnapping and hostage taking as part of their business model,” CNN reported.

The official said no ransom was paid for Woodke’s release, and there was no “direct negotiation” between the U.S. government and terrorist organizations, adding that the U.S.’ “best line of effort among many” ended up being to see what Niger “was able to deliver in their own engagement.”

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Saying that he has “no higher priority or focus than bringing home any unjustly detained American,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he “won’t rest until they’re all home and, like Jeffery, reunited with their families,” CNN reported.

Woodke’s release came at the same time as that of French journalist Olivier Dubois, who was kidnapped in Mali in 2021, Reuters reported

At a press conference, Nigerian interior minister Hamadou Adamou Souley said: “After several months of efforts, Nigerian authorities obtained the liberation of the two hostages from the hands of (JNIM), an active terrorist group in West Africa and the Sahel.”

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s website describes JNIM as “a Salafi-Jihadist organization that aligns itself with al-Qa‘ida’s global jihadist ideology,” adding that the group “funds itself by ransoming captives, taxing locals, smuggling weapons, and extorting human and drug traffickers.”