Friday, March 31, 2023

'I Was a Hostage': McKinleyville's Jeff Woodke Talks About His Six Years Held by Al-Qaeda in Africa

Posted By on Fri, Mar 31, 2023 at 3:32 PM

click to enlarge Jeffery Woodke speaks at a press conference at Arcata First Baptist Church. - MARK MCKENNA
  • Mark McKenna
  • Jeffery Woodke speaks at a press conference at Arcata First Baptist Church.
In his own words, McKinleyville’s Jeffrey Woodke was held captive “a long time.”

“Six years, five months, five days and 12 hours, give or take a few minutes, I was hostage,” he told a handful of reporters this afternoon in the Fireplace Room of Arcata First Baptist Church during a brief press conference, offering his first public remarks since his March 20 release in Western Africa, where he’d been taken captive while doing missionary work in Niger.

Woodke identified Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), the official branch of Al-Qaeda in Mali, as the group that held him hostage, but declined to speak to the organization’s motivation or what ultimately led to his release, saying he feared it would compromise an FBI investigation.

“There are other hostages still being held in the Sahel and an ongoing investigation that I do not wish to compromise,” he said.

“I want to thank God, my family, my friends, as well as the U.S. government, for their labors to secure my release. My wife and a network of friends and organizations including Crisis Consulting International, this church and YWAM (Youth with a Mission) worked tirelessly for six- and one-half years to bring me home,” Woodke continued. “I owe them my life.”

Woodke praised the Biden administration’s “successful efforts” to bring him home, culminating, he said, when at about 9 a.m. on March 20, his captors took him to meet “special forces from a third-party nation” at a release point “in a remote desert location.” He said he was released along with French journalist Olivier Dubois, who was abducted in Mali in 2021, though Woodke said they were only together in captivity for “a few days prior to our release.”

According to news reports at the time, Woodke was taken from his home in Abalak, Niger, in a coordinated attack on Oct. 14, 2016, that saw a man on a motorcycle first approach and gun down Woodke’s security guard before another vehicle with armed assailants pulled up and ordered Woodke to strip to his underwear before taking him captive. This afternoon, Woodke said his treatment was harsh, and over time he began to lose hope.

“I was treated brutally and without humanity during my captivity,” he said. “I was beaten and held continually in chains for 16 hours a day, every day, seven days a week. I was kept in isolation. I suffered injuries and illness, which were never medically treated.”

Woodke said he was fed twice a day, “most days, some days not,” mostly boiled rice and a simple bread baked in the sand. Early in his captivity, Woodke said he would pray up to eight hours a day and pass time walking in small circles. He said there were many times he lost hope of seeing his wife and two sons again.

“There were many times like that,” he conceded. “For the last year I was held hostage, I figured I was done. I’d given up.”

Woodke’s wife, Els, however, said her hope never wavered.

“For me, it was different,” she said. “I remember when it first happened, I cried out to God, ‘I want my husband home,’ and he did not say, ‘No.’ And I believed that God has never changed his mind when he did not say no six and a half years ago, he did not say no every day. So, I kept my faith that Jeff would be home and lived every day in faith he would come home.”
click to enlarge Jeffery Woodke and his wife, Els, at the March 31 press conference. - MARK MCKENNA
  • Mark McKenna
  • Jeffery Woodke and his wife, Els, at the March 31 press conference.
While he’d lost hope, Woodke said it was faith, too, that sustained him.

“You might end up at the end of your faith as a human being, but faith is a funny thing — it stays with you whether you like it or not, I think,” he said, adding that he had various coping mechanisms, the specifics of which he declined to discuss, that helped him “get through the day.”

Woodke said his immediate focus is on healing — he has chronic gastrointestinal problems, his right Achilles was injured by a blow from a rifle butt and his left knee is “blown up” — and he will continue visiting doctors and physical therapists, while also taking “care of a myriad of other details.”

“One of the things I would like to do is to work toward the release of the seven foreign hostages that still remain in captivity in the Sahel, mostly in Mali, as far as we know — a Romanian, an Australian, a South African, a German priest and three Italians, a family that was captured,” he said. “It is unsure exactly which group is holding them.”

Woodke said he underwent a hunger strike after his fifth year in captivity, refusing to eat until he was able to communicate with his family and country, and was able to do both those things between November and December of 2022. Before seeing a resulting video of his family, Woodke said he had no knowledge whether they were alive or dead. Asked about whether he was able to get communication back to them, he said he was but declined to give any additional detail. The hunger strike, he said, also corresponded with increased “activity to negotiate” his release.

It remains unclear exactly what led to Woodke’s release. U.S. officials have maintained that no ransom was paid or other concessions made to his captors, and news reports have quoted unnamed administration officials as saying the government of Niger was “central” to the successful effort to free him.

A Humboldt State University graduate, Woodke had been doing aid work in Niger for more than 25 years, having found his passion in the ministry.

“Jeff’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 advance in a largely Muslim world, has played a large part in the life and ministry of the [Arcata First Baptist] Church,” a short bio on church’s the Redwood Coast School of Missions website reads.

At the time of his abduction, Woodke was working through YAM, 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 spokesperson Pete Thompson issued a statement indicating Woodke had been working with a locally based aid organization JEMED.

The organization had been working in the region for more than two decades 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.”

This afternoon, Woodke said he doesn’t know if he will ever return to Niger again, or if he’d ever want to.

After six years away, he indicated he’s focused on his health, seeing other hostages freed and reconnecting with Els, their sons and grandchildren.

“Now it’s time to learn how to be a family again, and that’s a journey, and we’re on it,” he said.

“In some ways,” Els Woodke added, “it’s like he’s never been gone, you try to just pick it up. But then of course there are moments during the day when you realize you cannot just pick it up.”

Dressed in gray slacks and a dark blue dress shirt, Woodke entered the press conference walking with a cane, a walking boot on his right foot and a brace on his left knee. He winced in apparent pain when he sat down on a couch prior to his introduction, but held an easy demeanor throughout the press conference, joking and laughing with reporters at times. He closed his prepared remarks saying he looks forward to sharing more details of his captivity in the future.

“I’m looking forward to telling my whole story at the right time and in the right way,” he said. “For now, I will limit the information I share and continue to cooperate with authorities to bring these monsters to justice and help get the other people out because they’re living in hell.”
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Thadeus Greenson

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

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