March 23, 2023
IntelBrief: Release of Hostages in West Africa Highlights Important Role of Partnerships
On March 20, American aid worker Jeff Woodke was released following over six years in captivity in West Africa – one of the longest held U.S. hostages. Marking the occasion, U.S. President Joe Biden stated, “Today, I am gratified to share that American Jeff Woodke was released from captivity in West Africa. Jeff was kidnapped while serving people in the Sahel as an aid worker, and I am grateful that he will soon be reunited with his wife, Els, and their family after spending more than six years held hostage by terrorists.” Woodke had been active in Niger as a missionary and humanitarian aid worker for over thirty years; in October 2016, he was held at gunpoint at his home, his wife Els told NPR, and then forced into a trunk and driven to the border of Mali. Olivier Dubois, a French journalist abducted in 2021 by the Al-Qaeda-linked Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM), was also released on Monday and taken to Niger. “We feel joy and immense relief. Our colleague was held hostage for 711 days in Mali. His captivity was the longest for a French journalist held hostage since the Lebanon war,” a statement by Reporters Without Borders said. Officials with knowledge of these cases confirm there was no relationship with the negotiations regarding Mr. Woodke.
Although terrorist groups linked to both ISIS and Al-Qaeda have been active in the region, officials have declined to specify which terrorist group held Woodke, only pointing in the direction of several “intersecting and overlapping terrorist networks in that part of West Africa,” according to an official quoted by CNN. The official also added that these terrorist networks see “kidnapping and hostage taking as part of their business model frankly, and as a source of revenue and support.” In a rare interview given to French journalist Wassim Nasr, the head of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) suggested their group was less interested in targeting Europe directly though remained evasive on the issue of targeting French nationals in the Sahel. Officials with knowledge of the process have reaffirmed that the “kidnap for ransom” (KFR) model in the region has largely been about revenue generation rather than being ideologically driven. However, it also means that such “mature and security conscious captor networks” can engage in long drawn-out engagements that can stretch the resources of states. Moreover, the “tyranny of distance” proved a challenging complication in efforts to locate and trace Woodke, highlighting the important roles of private entities and foreign partners. President Biden stressed the important role played by the government of Niger, and stakeholders engaged in the process have underscored the important leadership of the White House and the U.S. Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA), Ambassador Roger Carstens, as well as the important contributions of foreign partners and private entities.
A recent session at the Global Security Forum organized by The Soufan Center highlighted the complexities of addressing the practice of hostage taking by state and nonstate actors, including the challenges arising from the need to interact with designated terrorist groups, and the different approaches needed when dealing with wrongfully detained citizens held by states. In the case of Mr. Woodke, officials with knowledge of the process confirmed that no concession was made. Moreover, as one official confirmed to CNN, “There was no direct negotiation here between the U.S. government and the terrorist organizations, it is worth making that clear. Certainly, we did not pay a ransom a concession to a terrorist organization here.” Instead, officials have noted the importance of alternative pathways to resolving situations involving hostages and wrongful detainees, ones that focus on diplomacy, dialogue, and engagement. Given the focus on revenue generation through KFR by illicit groups, the importance of development assistance and addressing many of the structural conditions that generate grievances and opportunities for terrorist and criminal groups to capitalize on, the importance of investing in development and humanitarian assistance has been stressed. On his recent trip to West Africa, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the U.S. would provide $150 million in humanitarian assistance to support vulnerable populations in Niger and throughout the Sahel region.
The releases of Woodke and Dubois come amidst growing concern about security and counterterrorism in the Sahel region, as ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups continue to sow violence and instability against the background of reduced international counterterrorism focus. France’s counterterrorism Operation Barkhane in Mali has been drawn down and the United States has adopted a more “partner-enabled, U.S.-led” approach to security cooperation in the region which has led to some concerns among experts and practitioners regarding the implications of reduced international support to address these evolving threats. As geopolitics play out in the Sahel, the departure of Western forces has coincided with increased efforts by the Kremlin to woo African leaders, particularly through the deployment of private military companies like the Wagner Group, and offer security assistance without the emphasis on human rights issues raised by Western partners. However, the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages (1983) makes it an offense to seize or detain and threaten to kill, to injure, or continue to detain another person in order to compel a third party to do or abstain from doing any act as an explicit or implicit condition for the release of the hostage (Article 1). Officials have stressed that the UN convention played an important role in shaping the actions of the Nigerien government and it remains an important foundation for dialogue with international partners. This reaffirms the importance of finding alternative pathways to resolve hostage situations beyond the traditional hostage rescue operations, and the value of partnerships between governments and private entities; a focus by international partners on creating stability and prosperity in the Sahel region is a critical element in efforts to address the cases of hostages and wrongful detainees.