By: JAMES GORDON MEEK, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — The family of an American hostage of ISIS in West Africa is facing a new worry after suffering through years of his captivity: the risk of a coronavirus infection and fears that his captors in the Sahara Desert may not be able to protect him in a vast, austere region where running water is rare, his wife told ABC News this week.
Jeffery Ray Woodke, 59, a Christian humanitarian worker in Niger since 1991, was kidnapped in the country’s northern desert in October 2016 by militants aligned with the Islamic State terrorist group. Officials said they believe he likely is held by ISIS in neighboring Mali, where French Armed Forces operate.
“My hope is really that he’s isolated enough. But that doesn’t always protect you. So, yes, I am more worried,” Els Woodke told ABC News last week in her first U.S. interview since her husband’s abduction more than three years ago.
Addressing his captors directly, Els Woodke said, “I would say, please consider Jeff’s age and what is going on in the world. It’s not good to keep captives. Send him home.”
Both U.S. and Nigerien officials have told ABC News they believe Jeffery Woodke is alive. His wife decided to speak publicly this week during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, to renew her past pleas on YouTube in 2017 and 2018 for the captors to set him free.
The virus that causes COVID-19 is now in North Africa’s Sahel region. At least 58 deaths have been confirmed from the coronavirus between Mali and Niger as of Thursday, according to Johns Hopkins University, but the numbers are likely much higher because of a lack of testing capability in a large and lawless land mass out of reach to health workers.
Precautions such as frequent hand-washing and use of disinfectants in the U.S. and Europe are not likely practical for the captors in such remote areas of the Sahara Desert where running water is scarce, said Els Woodke, who has lived in Niger with her husband and their sons.
Jeffery Woodke will turn 60 this year and had manageable health issues at the time of his kidnapping in Niger. Those 60 and over with underlying health conditions are most susceptible to the coronavirus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Woodke lived in remote areas of Niger for almost three decades, helping nomadic peoples including the Tuareg improve sustainable means of surviving and once even trucked in 60 tons of rice and cooking oil during a famine, according to his family and JEMED, the aid group with which he was associated.
There are three other Americans believed to be held by terrorist groups overseas and more than a dozen others imprisoned by foreign regimes, officials have told ABC News. Officials at the U.S. Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, which is a joint-agency organization to coordinate hostage recovery efforts, had no comment on Tuesday.
One former senior U.S. official said the coronavirus adds a new threat to any American held hostage overseas — but it’s also a “window of opportunity” for captor networks to show mercy, lest a hostage die of the disease in their care.
“Keeping hostages alive and safe takes considerable resources, and the risks to groups that allow an American to die of COVID-19 in custody during this emergency could not be higher,” said Eric Lebson, a former national security official who volunteers as an advisor to several hostages’ families, though not the Woodkes.
A hostage who dies could make their captors a high priority military target to the Trump administration, which prides itself on recovering hostages alive, Lebson said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday offered a warning to anyone, be it states or groups, holding Americans.
“One message I want to make sure and repeat today: If you are wrongly detaining Americans during this time, and they become infected and die of coronavirus, we will hold your government strictly responsible,” he said. “All wrongfully detained Americans should be released immediately.”
In an exclusive interview last September in New York during the United Nations General Assembly, Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou told ABC News that the American hostage had devoted his life to helping Niger’s most impoverished peoples in the north and that he was known to have survived his captivity.
“Fortunately — and I had to declare it a few weeks ago — he is alive and he is in good health,” Issoufou said in the September interview, though he did not specify how he had the information.
Back in Northern California, his wife said she was surprised but pleased to hear the Nigerien leader speak with such “high regard for Jeff” and reveal he was not lost to international terrorism.
“Well, of course, when I first heard that, it was like, ‘Oh, great! Wonderful!’ I was hopeful that the president had information,” she told ABC News in an interview in March.
Woodke’s recovery has been a priority for American military and intelligence assets in Africa since 2016. The reasons for his abduction are unclear because the family says it has received no demands from the captor network.
“I hope Jeff’s captors will see reason, will do the right thing, and will let him go. I hope it will not get to a military operation, a rescue, an extraction. Because that would put [U.S. forces’] lives in danger as well,” Els Woodke said. “I believe that this strategy of taking hostages will never give them [ISIS] their goals. … I think it’s a big hindrance, really, because that just doesn’t build trust.”
In October 2017, a year after Woodke was kidnapped, a 10-man U.S. Army Special Forces team and three dozen Nigerien soldiers were attacked by more than 100 jihadi fighters from ISIS outside the village of Tongo, with four American soldiers killed in action alongside at least six Nigerien troops who died. The team was attempting to locate an ISIS Greater Sahara sub-commander in the local ISIS branch known as Doundoun Cheffou.
Last fall, the U.S. Rewards for Justice program offered $5 million for information leading to the capture of Cheffou’s boss within the group, known as Adnan “Abu Walid” al-Sahrawi, who the U.S. Department of State blames for the 2017 attack on the U.S. Special Forces team. Unmentioned in the wanted poster is that the group Cheffou and al-Sahrawi lead, ISIS Greater Sahara, is also suspected as having kidnapped Jeffery Woodke from the town of Abalak, Niger, while working for the aid group JEMED.
Three and a half years later, Els Woodke said her husband has been gone “long enough.”
“Jeff has never done you any harm. He’s been good to your people. He has loved your people,” she said, in hope ISIS commanders will be moved by her pleas during Ramadan, which began in late April.
“Send him back home to me. He deserves to be with his family. He gave his life to better the lives of your people. He deserves to be at home. He deserves to rest from his work, and to be with his family,” she said.
ABC News producer Brian N. Epstein and ABC News contributor Andrew Fredericks contributed to this report.
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