Monday, March 20, 2023

McKinleyville Man Freed After Six Years Hostage

Posted By on Mon, Mar 20, 2023 at 8:46 AM

click to enlarge Jeffrey Woodke - SUBMITTED
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  • Jeffrey Woodke
A McKinleyville man kidnapped and held hostage for six years in Africa has been freed, according to multiple news outlets and a social media post by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

"I'm gratified and relieved to see the release of U.S. hostage Jeff Woodke after over six years in captivity," Sullivan posted to Twitter this morning. "The U.S. thanks Niger for its help in bringing him home to all who love and miss him. I thank so many across our government who've worked tirelessly toward securing his freedom."

Woodke, a graduate of Humboldt State University with deep ties to the Arcata First Baptist Church, had spent much of the last three decades doing aid work in Niger when, on Oct. 14, 2016, he was taken by armed gunmen near his home in Abalak.

The New York Times reported this morning that Woodke's wife, Els Woodke, also of McKinleyville, said she was informed of his release by U.S. government officials, who said he was in Niger's capital, Niamey.

"He is safe," she told the paper by phone. "I don't yet know if he is healthy."

The New York Times cited an anonymous senior official as confirming the news and saying the U.S. government did not pay a ransom for Woodke or make other concessions to guarantee his release.

It's still unclear what militant group kidnapped Woodke. He was taken during a coordinated attack that saw a man on a motorcycle first approach Woodke's home and gunned down his bodyguard before a pickup truck with other armed assailants pulled up and ordered Woodke to strip to his underwear before taking him captive. No one has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, which Niger Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum told Agence France-Presse at the time was the work of "jihadists or bandits" seeking to sell him to Islamic extremists operating in neighboring Mali.

The official who spoke to the New York Times reportedly did not specify which organization had taken him, "calling it a hostage-taking 'network.'"

Woodke had reportedly been the topic of some conversation between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and senior Niger officials when Blinken visited the country earlier this month, in part, to announce $150 million in new humanitarian aid for the region.

CNN quoted a "senior administration official" as saying that while the U.S. has used military and intelligence resources for years to try to secure Woodke's release, the government of Niger proved "central" to the successful effort that saw him freed this morning.

After graduating from HSU in 1984 with a wildlife degree, Woodke found his passion and started a ministry in Niger, according to Redwood Coast School of Missions, which is run through Arcata First Baptist Church. A short bio on the school's website indicates missionary efforts in Niger became a huge part of his life's work.

"Jef'f''s passion in providing humanitarian aid to those who are among the poorest in the world, coupled with his desire to see God's kingdom advanced in a largely Muslim world has played a large part in the life and ministry of (Arcata First Baptist Church)," the website says.

At the time of his abduction, Woodke was working through Youth with a Mission, which bills itself as a "global movement of Christians ... dedicated to serving Jesus throughout the world." The group reports that it works in more than 1,100 locations spread across 180 countries, with a staff of more than 1,800. The group's spokesman, Pete Thompson, issued a statement indicating Woodke had been working with a locally based aid organization, JEMED.

According to the statement, JEMED has been working in the region for more than 25 years with the pastoral Tuareg and Fulani people through an integrated program aimed at helping them adapt to a more "sedentary lifestyle and overcome drought, disease, desertification and lack of access to education."
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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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