The government of Niger says it negotiated the release of a U.S. aid worker and a French journalist who were held captive by Islamist militants in the Sahel region. Aid worker and missionary Jeffery Woodke was held for more than six years, while reporter Olivier Dubois spent nearly two years in captivity.
Kidnappings in the Sahel are growing at an alarming rate. Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger saw a combined 532 abductions in 2022, up from to 33 in 2017, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. Some 115 abduction incidents have already been recorded in the region this year.
Kidnappings in the Sahel represent a “permanent risk” for all actors working in the region, said Fahiraman Kone, a security analyst with the Institute for Security Studies in Dakar.
“This is a practice that has been put forward for a long time by jihadist groups as a method of financing, but also by other ransom groups who simply engage in banditry,” he said.
Due to the private nature of hostage negotiations, it’s difficult to decipher the role each country plays in securing someone’s release, Kone said. Niger’s efforts, however, should not go unnoticed, he added.
“Niger nevertheless stands out more and more in the central Sahel in its approach to the fight against insecurity,” he said. “While in Burkina Faso and Mali we see a strengthening of the militarized approach to the fight, Niger is trying to set forth a policy of negotiation so as to disengage fighters from groups and to negotiate with jihadist leaders themselves.”
While abductions of foreigners often make headlines, the majority of kidnappings target locals. Some 97% of civilians abducted in Mali since 2012 were Malian, according to a 2021 report from the Institute for Security Studies. Local humanitarian workers, village chiefs, religious leaders and journalists are among the most targeted groups.
Sadibou Marong is the West Africa director for Reporters Without Borders. People must not forget Malian journalists Hamadoun Nialibouly and Moussa M’Bana Dicko, who are still being held captive, he said.
The safe return of Dubois shows that hostage release campaigns can be successful, he added.
“When people generally think it’s not possible, we need to go far and wide,” Marong said. “It’s always possible to set up mechanisms to advocate, to mobilize allies everywhere, so as to achieve such a positive result.”
Dubois was kidnapped on April 8, 2021, in Mali’s northern Gao region by the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, or JNIM, a coalition of jihadist insurgent groups active in the Sahel. He was there to interview a jihadist leader when he was abducted.
In a video posted to Twitter from Niamey airport Monday he told reporters he was tired but felt fine.
“It’s huge for me to be here, to be free,” he said. “I’d like to acknowledge Niger and their expertise with this sensitive mission. And to France as well — to everyone that allowed me to be here today.”
Dubois returned to Paris Tuesday, where he was greeted by President Emmanuel Macron.
U.S. aid worker Jeffery Woodke was kidnapped in October 2016 from his home in Abalak, Niger, and was believed to have been taken to Mali.
Niger’s interior minister said Nigerien authorities secured his release from JNIM.
Via Twitter, White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan said he was “gratified” and “relieved” over Woodke’s liberation and thanked Niger for its help in securing the aid worker’s release.
The releases followed a recent trip to Niger by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.