For the third time in three years, U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) special agents at the U.S. Embassy in Niamey worked behind-the-scenes to support the rescue of a U.S. national hostage.
DSS Regional Security Office personnel at the embassy worked closely with the Nigerien investigation team to support the release of U.S. missionary Jeffery Woodke, who was abducted by armed kidnappers from his home in Niger on October 14, 2016, and held in the Sahel region until March 20, 2023.
“Six years, five months, five days and 12 hours, give or take a few minutes, I was hostage,” Woodke told reporters at a press conference in California on March 31.
At about 9 a.m. on March 20, 2023, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) took him to meet “special forces from a third-party nation” at a release point “in a remote desert location,” Woodke said. At 2:50 pm, he was turned over to a DSS special agent from the embassy’s reception team at the Niamey International Airport.
About 57 hours after being released, Woodke departed Niamey for California.
“U.S. Embassy Niamey team members, with medical support from Embassy Bamako, local Department of Defense medical assets, and a U.S. government ‘Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell’ psychologist, focused on Mr. Woodke’s immediate health and well-being, as well as his expeditious return to the U.S.,” said Regional Security Officer Kevin McGuire, who was designated as the Incident Commander by the Chief of Mission. “What truly made the difference in this recovery was having key members of the team with prior experience in two of the recent recoveries, and some involved in all three.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on March 20, “We welcome the release of U.S. citizen Jeffery Woodke, who was held hostage in West Africa for more than six years. … We are grateful for the extraordinary cooperation of the Government of Niger, as well as the sustained efforts of countless organizations and individuals worldwide that resulted in Mr. Woodke’s release. I have no higher priority than bringing home U.S. nationals held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad …”
Those sustained efforts included the well-established partnerships that DSS has with law enforcement and security personnel in Niger. The embassy’s success in recovering Woodke was a result of prior planning, discussions, and relationship-building in the months leading up to his release.
“We coordinated tactical and operational decisions among agencies,” said RSO McGuire. “The DSS regional security office in Niamey maintains an excellent working relationship with our colleagues in the government of Niger, who worked so diligently with us to reunite this hostage with his family. It’s this type of close, worldwide law enforcement liaison capability that gives DSS unparalleled ability to help locate and return hostages.”
The Woodke kidnapping began in the village of Abalak, about an eight-hour drive east of the capital city, Niamey. Located in southern, central Niger on the edge of the Sahara Desert, Abalak is in a region known as the Sahel, a narrow belt of arid savanna along the Sahara’s southern edge.
Previously, the U.S. Embassy in Niamey provided critical support for the reunification of two American hostages after they were abducted by Islamic militants and held in Africa’s Sahel region. DSS coordinated with the Nigerien government in the August 2022 release of an American nun, and in October 2020, when another American hostage was rescued by U.S. military special operations forces.
About a year after Woodke’s abduction, in October 2017, an ambush near Tongo Tongo, Niger claimed the lives of four Nigerien and four American soldiers. The team was attempting to locate militants affiliated with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISIS-GS) suspected of having kidnapped Woodke.
ISIS-GS claimed responsibility for the Tongo Tongo ambush, and, in October 2019, the U.S. Department of State’s Rewards for Justice Program (RFJ), administered by DSS, announced a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the identification or location of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, leader of ISIS-GS. RFJ also offered a separate reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the arrest or conviction in any country of any individual who committed, conspired to commit, or aided or abetted in the commission of the 2017 ambush in Niger.
During the press conference on March 31, with his wife standing next to him, Woodke thanked all those who had worked hard to secure his release.
“I want to thank God, my family, my friends, as well as the U.S. government for their labors to secure my release,” Woodke said. “I owe them my life.”
DSS has the largest global presence of any U.S. law enforcement organization, operating at more than 270 U.S. diplomatic posts in over 170 countries, and in 33 U.S. cities. In addition, DSS has a presence within FBI field offices, joint counterterrorism task forces, the National Counterterrorism Center, Department of Defense geographic combatant command headquarters, the Joint Interagency Task Force and Special Operations Command. The organization leads worldwide security and law enforcement efforts to advance U.S. foreign policy and safeguard national security interests and is responsible for investigating transnational crimes.
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