American, French hostages freed in the Sahel

Olivier Doubois (left) and Jeff Woodke after being released to Nigerien custody and arriving in Niamey (Credit: Souleymane Ag Anara, AFP/Getty)

Yesterday, the United States and France announced that two of its hostages, Jeff Woodke and Olivier Dubois, respectively, were freed from jihadist captivity in the Sahel. Woodke spent over six years as a hostage, while Dubois was held for almost two. 

Details surrounding their release remain murky, but the two were handed over to Nigerien custody yesterday. The two are confirmed to have been held captive by the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), al-Qaeda’s official branch in the Sahel and most of West Africa. After their release, both Woodke and Dubois were transferred to Niamey, Niger, where they were flown back to their respective countries.

Both the United States and France have thanked Niger for its role in securing the hostages’ release, though the exact nature of Niger’s role remains unconfirmed. Local press has indicated the work of Nigerien mediators negotiating for the release of the hostages directly. The United States, for its part, has denied paying any ransom for the release of Woodke. 

Woodke was taken from his home in Niger’s northern Tahoua Region in late 2016 by gunmen linked to the Islamic State’s local affiliate, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). He then spent the next several years in the custody of Islamic State militants in the Sahel. 

However, his family was able to confirm that at some point before the death of ISGS emir Abu Walid al-Sahraoui in Sept. 2021, Woodke was transferred to the custody of JNIM. Details of how and why he was transferred to an ostensibly rival group remain unclear. Woodke himself has not yet commented on his time as a hostage as of the time of publishing. 

Prior to mid-2019, JNIM and ISGS did cooperate and had a relatively peaceful relationship despite being on different ends of the global jihadi spectrum. It is possible that Woodke was transferred prior to the breakdown in the relationship and subsequent open warfare between the factions. 

Olivier Dubois, a French journalist who was covering events in Mali, was taken by JNIM gunmen not far from the northern Malian city of Gao in April 2021. A few weeks later, Dubois appeared in a video released by JNIM in which he pleaded for his release. He appeared in another proof of life video roughly a year later. 

Yesterday’s hostage release is the first of its kind since last December when German national Jorg Lange was freed from ISGS captivity. The German press at the time outlined the role of Moroccan intelligence services in the release of Lange and denied the payment of any ransom.

Additional high-profile hostages, including Malian, French, and Italian nationals, were freed as part of a large prisoner swap between the Malian state and JNIM in late 2020. That same deal also confirmed that a Swiss hostage, Beatrice Stockly, was killed by JNIM not long before the swap. Colombian missionary Gloria Cecilia Argoti, who was abducted by JNIM in 2017, was also released in late 2021. 

An additional kidnapped Westerner, Canadian national Kirk Woodman, was executed by Islamic State militants in Burkina Faso in early 2019. 

While various Western states have denied the payment of ransoms in the Sahel, jihadist groups, particularly al Qaeda, have been able to net tens of millions of dollars from this tactic over the last two decades. In fact, kidnapping-for-ransom remains a viable tactic for Sahelian jihadis. 

Several other Westerners remain in jihadist captivity in the Sahel. This includes Romanian national Iulian Ghergut, who was kidnapped by al-Qaeda militants in northern Burkina Faso in 2015; Australian national Ken Elliot, who was kidnapped by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb also in northern Burkina Faso in Jan. 2016; two Italian citizens taken by JNIM in southern Mali in May 2022; and German priest Father Hans-Joachim Lohre, who was taken by JNIM in Bamako, Mali, in Nov. 2022. 

And just recently, JNIM confirmed it was holding a South African national, Gerco van Deventer, who was abducted by criminals in southern Libya in 2017 before being sold to JNIM and transferred to northern Mali.

So while the release of two high-profile hostages from the clutches of al-Qaeda in the Sahel should indeed be celebrated and hopefully bring a degree of closure to the families impacted, the fact that JNIM continues to hold additional captives, and still actively engages in kidnapping-for-ransom operations, unfortunately calibrates such celebrations. 

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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