Wife of American Man Kidnapped 5 Years Ago in Africa Says Release Being Hindered By U.S.

Els Woodke, the wife of an American humanitarian worker kidnapped in Niger five years ago, said the U.S. government's "restrictions" have hindered her in her attempts to raise a multimillion-dollar ransom for her husband's release.

Woodke told the Associated Press she believes her husband, Jeff Woodke, is in the custody of JNIM, a West African al-Qaeda affiliate. She received information indicating he was alive over the summer and maintains the hope that he still is.

Jeff Woodke was kidnapped from his home in Abalak, Niger, in October 2016, when men killed his guards and forced him into their truck at gunpoint.

Els Woodke said the captors have demanded a multimillion-dollar ransom, but the precise number is inconsistent. Woodke expressed her frustrations over the U.S. government's lack of help. According to the AP report, the government does not encourage ransom payments in hostage cases.

"I have also had so many restrictions imposed by the U.S. government that any meaningful attempt to raise a ransom is effectively prohibited," she said.

Woodke also mentioned that she attempted to speak directly with JNIM's leader, Iyad Ag Ghali, Wednesday to plead for her husband's release.

"You are the only one with the power to make that happen," she said to Ghali. "Releasing Jeff will require compassion and mercy, but these are the characteristics of a strong and courageous leader."

For more reporting from The Associated Press, see below:

Els Woodke, Jeff Woodke
Els Woodke said the U.S. government has put restrictions on her attempts at raisng ransom money for her kidnapped husband. Above, Woodke stands in front of a video monitor which displays a photo of her husband Jeff Woodke, who is the victim of a 2016 kidnapping by a jihadist terrorist group in West Africa, during a news conference in Washington on November 17. Cliff Owen/AP Photo

In her most extensive remarks yet about her husband's ordeal, she also expressed her discontent with aspects of the U.S. government's approach. She said she has been repeatedly told over the years that if she discloses details about her husband's case, she will be cut off from receiving additional information.

She said the restrictions have to do with the fact that "other governments are involved," though she declined to elaborate.

The U.S. government does not encourage ransom payments in hostage cases but has also made clear that prosecutors are not interested in charging relatives who choose to make such payments. A U.S. official said in response to Woodke's comments that though it is U.S. policy to deny hostage takers concessions, that stance "does not preclude the United States government from helping hostage families with private efforts to communicate with hostage takers."

Els Woodke urged the government of Mali to make the release of her husband and other hostages held by JNIM a precondition of negotiations with the group. She also urged Secretary of State Antony Blinken to make good on his promise in February that he "would not take any options off the table" in her husband's case.

She said that based on information she received from the government and "other sources," she believes that Jeff Woodke was alive at least as of this summer.

Plus, she added, he is well-known in the region.

"If he would have died, I am sure that would not have gone unnoticed. That news would have been passed on. That is for me an even stronger indication" that he is still alive, she said.

Els Woodke, news conference
Els Woodke spoke with JNIM terrorist group leader Iyad Ag Ghali, pleading him to free her husband, Jeff Woodke. Here, Woodke speaks about the 2016 kidnapping during a news conference in Washington on November 17. Cliff Owen/AP Photo