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‘It was hell’: Hostage freed after years in Africa recounts ordeal and frustration with US

By ERIC TUCKER

WASHINGTON - The Islamic extremists drove up to the American missionary’s home in Niger under the cover of evening, gunning down two guards who stood watch. Jeff Woodke recalls seeing the muzzle blasts and hearing the screams before being thrown into a pickup truck that then sped away.

So began more than six years of captivity, a period in which he says he was beaten, locked in chains for hours a day and pressured repeatedly to convert to Islam and endured self-imposed hunger strikes.

“It was hell,” said Woodke, 62, who was released in March. “I think the hardest part was knowing that my family, if they were alive, they were suffering too.” As time progressed, he said, he began to feel that “it’s better for me to be dead than continue putting them through suffering. And that feeling grew and grew and grew. The last year I was there, I was asking them to kill me.”

But the ordeal, he and his wife say, was compounded by years of frustrating interactions with the U.S. government back home. They say they believe FBI officials withheld information about negotiations with the captors and provided what they felt was inadequate help and guidance about raising money for a ransom. The agitation boiled over in a Zoom call weeks before Woodke’s release when his wife, Els, said she vented to Secretary of State Antony Blinken about a ransom process she asserted favored the rich.

“I said, if it was you that had been kidnapped, you would be free in a week because your wife is free to take from your money and buy you free,” she recalled saying. “So because you are rich, you can pay the ransom. But a poor person is never able to do that.”

The Woodkes spoke recently to The Associated Press in a joint interview in which they shared previously unreported details about his captivity, the family’s conversations with U.S. officials and his more recent challenges reintegrating into society.

At a time when the plight of detained Americans is receiving unprecedented attention, the couple’s frustration shows the government’s uneven success in navigating relationships with hostage families, despite a 2015 policy overhaul designed to improve communications and to ease concerns that ransom payments could result in criminal prosecution. Their statements represent a rare public airing of the delicate and tense interactions that often precede a detainee’s release.

The FBI declined to address the Woodkes’ specific claims but said it had worked “tirelessly” to bring Woodke home and was happy he was reunited with his family: “We are committed to continuing to support Jeff and his family.” The State Department confirmed Blinken and Els Woodke had had multiple conversations but declined to discuss the substance.

American officials have said little about the circumstances of Woodke’s release, noting only that it was a collaborative effort and that the U.S. government did not pay a ransom or make other concessions. Woodke was freed alongside a French journalist, Olivier Dubois, even as other hostages remain in the area. Woodke was similarly circumspect, saying that he doesn’t know with certainty what led to his release but that he was recovered by French forces.

Woodke’s work as a missionary and aid worker in some ways made him a natural kidnapping target, especially in the vast, semiarid expanse below the Sahara Desert known as the Sahel, where Islamic extremists have long used abductions and ransom money to fund jihadi operations.

As a result, he had taken precautions over his three decades in the area, including maintaining contact with the State Department and local embassy about security risks.

Still, on the evening of Oct. 14, 2016, he was ambushed at home in Abalak, Niger, by extremists who killed two guards at the property. He said he tried to run but wound up being seized, dragged by the wrist, his body scraping against the ground, and tossed into a truck that drove toward the border with Mali.

He spent his captivity traded among extremist groups operating under the umbrella of JNIM, an al-Qaida-aligned insurgent organization. He kept track of time through a sundial during the day and stars at night, though he says he was given a watch near the end of his detention. He initially prayed eight hours a day. That amount dwindled as time passed, when he began praying for death.

He said he spent hours chained in isolation under a tree — “You ever had a lightning storm with chains on your feet? That’ll get you,” he said ruefully — and spent time in a tiny hut.

“When they were nice to me was only because they were preaching,” Woodke said. “They told me repeatedly, ‘We’ll be nice to you if you convert. The chains will come off if you convert.’”

Early in his captivity, he said he recorded the first of several proof-of-life videos for his family as his wife interacted with FBI crisis negotiators working the case.

But Els Woodke and the private hostage negotiator she was working with, Robert Klamser, said in the interview that they felt the FBI kept them at bay during negotiations, misleading them about the scope of demands and withholding information as they and a third-party government they did not identify worked to communicate with the militants and receive their conditions.

Klamser said they learned in 2021, belatedly, that the captors had demanded as part of the negotiations a ransom payment of 3 million euros and the release of prisoners from West African jails. He said negotiators acting without the family’s input succeeded in getting the demand for the prisoner release dropped, achieving on one hand a U.S. policy objective but also resulting in a doubled ransom demand of 6 million euros — an even more untenable amount for Els Woodke, a teacher’s assistant.

As she embarked on raising a ransom, she said she was told she was free to do so but had to personally approach potential donors, a requirement she considered overly burdensome. She said the FBI would not offer written reassurances that no one involved in raising the ransom would be prosecuted, which she and Klamser said was important for prospective donors.

She never paid a ransom, lamenting during a 2021 appearance in Washington that government “restrictions” had hindered her ability to raise a sufficient sum.

“I tried. I wrote letters personally to people, the people that I knew,” she said in the interview. “I tried because I wanted to try anything and not leave one stone unturned.”

The Obama administration, reacting to the beheading deaths of Western hostages by Islamic State operatives, crafted in 2015 a new policy meant to at least tacitly reassure families that though the U.S. government does not condone ransom payments, it also would not prosecute families who made them. While no families have faced charges, hostage relatives in surveys over the last decade have nonetheless cited lingering confusion over the policy.

The release, under circumstances neither the White House nor the French government fully explained, came March 20, when Woodke said he was driven in a Toyota pickup truck with Dubois, the French hostage, to the western border of Niger and set free. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby described it as the culmination of “hard, gruelling, deliberate work.”

Woodke has returned home to McKinleyville, California, but adjustments have been hard. He’s grappling with leg injuries and steep bills for medical and dental treatment. Even something as simple as acquiring a driver’s license took months. He says he hasn’t felt sufficiently helped by the government, though he says the office of the State Department’s special envoy for hostage affairs has provided support. Klamser says there are plans to raise money from friends and supporters to offset the cost of mounting expenses.

“We’re not things, we’re not bargaining chips, we’re not cases — we’re people,” Woodke said. “We don’t want to sit under trees in chains. Our families don’t want to have to suffer.”