Tuesday 20 June 2023

Missionary Held Hostage By Islamic Extremists For Over 6 Years Says FBI Withheld Info, Misled Wife

 The FBI is accused of misleading the wife of an American hostage as U.S. officials worked to release missionary Jeff Woodke, who was held captive by Islamic extremists for more than six years. 

Woodke, 62, was released in March and recounted his half-decade in captivity after being kidnapped from his home in Niger by Islamic militants in October 2016. Woodke and his wife, Els, told the Associated Press that they believe FBI officials withheld information and misled them about the scope of demands from the kidnappers. 

“It was hell. I think the hardest part was knowing that my family, if they were alive, they were suffering too,” Woodke said. Throughout the course of his captivity, the missionary — who worked with U.S. non-profit Youth With A Mission — was placed in chains, subjected to beatings, and pressured to convert to Islam.

According to the Woodkes, U.S. officials poorly communicated with them on the status of the negotiations and offered little help raising money for a ransom. Els Woodke said her frustration came to a boiling point during a Zoom call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken a few weeks before her husband was released. 

“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 telling Blinken. “So because you are rich, you can pay the ransom. But a poor person is never able to do that.”

Els Woodke and Robert Klamser, a private investigator she was working with, alleged that the FBI withheld important information about the negotiations and misled them about how much the terrorist group had asked for. Klamser said they learned after the fact that Woodke’s captors demanded a ransom payment of 3 million euros ($3.3 million) along with the release of prisoners from Western African jails. Negotiators working on behalf of the U.S. government got the militants to drop their demand for a prisoner release but raised the ransom price to 6 million euros ($6.5 million), a change in the negotiations that made Els Woodke’s chances of raising the money even slimmer. 

The U.S. government does not pay ransom to kidnappers but allows the families of hostages to raise money for a ransom, while still not condoning the practice. However, Els Woodke said that the FBI offered no written assurances that no one involved in raising money for the ransom would be prosecuted, which made it harder for her to get money from prospective donors. In 2021, she said that government restrictions were hindering her ability to raise money, according to the AP.

A policy crafted by the Obama administration in 2015 attempted to reassure families of hostages that they wouldn’t be prosecuted for raising ransom money, but according to surveys conducted over the past decade, families say that the policy is confusing, despite no prosecutions since its implementation. 

Woodke was released along with a French journalist on March 20, and the White House has never fully explained how it got the American missionary home. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Woodke’s return to the U.S. was the result of “hard, grueling, deliberate work.” 

The FBI told the AP that it had worked “tirelessly” to free Woodke from his captors but did not comment on the Woodkes’ claims.

“We are committed to continuing to support Jeff and his family,” the FBI said.

Woodke, now home in McKinleyville, California, is recovering from leg injuries and dealing with medical bills. Even after his return to the U.S., Woodke still feels like the U.S. government abandoned him and his family as he sat in chains in Africa. 

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

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