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'He is Safe' 

McKinleyville man freed after six years held hostage in Africa

click to enlarge Els and Jeff Woodke.


Els and Jeff Woodke.

A McKinleyville man kidnapped and held hostage for more than six years in Africa has been freed, President Joe Biden and other U.S. officials announced March 20.

"Today, I am gratified to share that American Jeff Woodke was released from captivity in West Africa," Biden said in a statement. "Jeff was kidnapped while serving people in the Sahel as an aid worker, and I am grateful that he will soon be reunited with his wife, Els, and their family after spending more than six years held hostage by terrorists."

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 the morning of March 20 that 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. I don't yet know if he is healthy," she told the paper by phone, adding later after speaking with her husband that he was in "great spirits."

A statement posted to the website before Els spoke with her husband expressed her gratitude for all the efforts to see him freed.

"She has expressed her profound thanks to the many people in governments and others around the world who have worked so hard to see this result," it read. "She praises God for answering the prayers of Christians everywhere who have prayed for this outcome."

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 gun 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 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 March 20, a sentiment that Biden echoed in his statement.

"The United States extends our deep appreciation to the Nigerian government, which was a critical partner in helping to secure his release," the president said. "I am also grateful for the hard work of dedicated public servants across the U.S. government who made this possible, including the hard-working patriots of the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell based at the FBI, the U.S. military, and of the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs based at the Department of State. We remain committed to keep faith with Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained all around the world, and there is no higher priority for this administration than our work to bring them home."

North Coast Congressmember Jared Huffman, who had been involved in early efforts to try to see Woodke freed, described news of his release "amazing" on social media.

"I'm incredibly happy and relieved to learn that my constituent Jeffrey has been freed," Huffman said. "Thank you to everyone who has worked with us over the past six years to bring him home."

According to the New York Times, U.S. officials have at times believed a "dangerous military operation would have been required" to free Woodke, adding that his being held hostage may have played a role in a fatal ambush of U.S. troops in West African in October of 2017.

The paper reported that intelligence officials intercepted a cellphone signal of a known terrorist with ties to Al Qaeda suspected of having played a role in Woodke's kidnapping and planned a raid to find him in the scrubland in Niger. After the operation came up empty, four American troops were killed in an ambush near the village of Tongo Tongo.

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.

"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 advanced in a largely Muslim world has played a large part in the life and ministry of (Arcata First Baptist Church)," the website says.

Part of Woodke's work with the Tuareg and Woodabe people, which included a literacy program, saw him take groups from Humboldt County to West Africa on humanitarian trips. Christian author Cheryl Ford indicated in a social media post that she was a 15-year member of the Arcata First Baptist Church congregation and had gone to Niger with her family under Woodke's leadership a couple of times.

"One had to marvel at the man," she wrote.

Woodke returned to HSU and received a master's degree in science and environmental systems with a focus on international development in 2003, in an apparent effort to further his ministry.

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 spokesperson, 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."

An Abalak resident told Agence France-Presse at the time of Woodke's kidnapping that he was "perfectly integrated" with the local population, speaking the Tuareg's Tamasheq language fluently as well as Fula and Arabic. The resident said locals had urged Woodke to leave the volatile area, which sits along the porous Malian border and was reportedly "awash with armed groups."

"We tried many times to make him leave the area as he was more exposed than ever, but he refused, saying he wasn't afraid," the paper quoted the resident as saying.

Arcata First Baptist Church declined to comment for this story, saying Woodke's family would "most likely" hold a press conference later in the week. But the church posted a picture to social media of Woodke shortly after his release, asking its congregation to keep him and Els in their prayers as he "navigates through his newfound freedom and the many challenges that are before him."

"What a miracle after all this time!" Melissa Tamburello replied. "What wonderful news!"

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the news editor at the Journal. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or

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Thadeus Greenson

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

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