Jeffery Woodke, 55, the U.S. missionary who was kidnapped by armed men from his home in Niger, West Africa, on Friday after they killed his two guards, is now believed to be in the hands of a drug-trafficking jihadist group called The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).
"We think this is the MUJAO," Nigerien Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum told the AFP. "We followed the kidnappers when they crossed the Malian border. They headed to the Menaka region (eastern Mali ), near the Niger border, an area controlled by the Mujao."
According to the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, the MUJAO is a splinter group of the Organization of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which formally announced its existence following its abduction of three humanitarian workers from a Saharan refugee camp in Tindouf on Oct. 23, 2011. MUJAO's leaders are known to be drug traffickers involved in the drug trade in the Sahel and southern Algeria.
A Paris Match report suggests that Woodke's kidnapping could be the result of a dispute concerning a stolen drug shipment which implicates a local government official. Woodke, who is affectionately known as the "white wolf," is being used as collateral.
The missionary, who is from McKinlyville, California, is a longtime aid worker with The Youth With A Mission charity and has been living in Niger since 1992. As recently as Sept. 17, he was also listed as an instructor at Redwood Coast School of Missions which is operated by the Arcata First Baptist Church.
Although he is a proud believer in Christ, a Le Monde report said Woodke never proselytized while he was in Niger with his wife and two sons. The sons reportedly returned to the U.S. with their mother in 2006 to pursue graduate studies while Woodke split his time between the U.S. and his work in Niger.
The Christian Post reached out to YWAM for comment on the investigation into Woodke's kidnapping on Tuesday but no one was available.
A representative from Arcata First Baptist Church said the organization is expected to release a statement on the kidnapping soon.
"All I can say is YWAM is handling all media requests and will be coming out with an official statement," the representative of Arcata First Baptist Church told CP on Tuesday.
On Friday night according to Reuters, the gunmen raided Woodke's house in central Niger, killing his guard and housekeeper before driving him across the desert toward Mali.
Residents reported hearing gunfire near Woodke's home late on Friday and the town's Mayor, Ahmed Dilo, told Reuters that gunmen first came on a motorbike to kill Woodke's guard before whisking the missionary off in a truck.
A government source also told CNN on condition of anonymity that witnesses in Abalak said the gunmen also forced Woodke to strip down to his undergarments before putting him in their four-wheel drive vehicle. The source said removing clothes from hostages was a usual practice of terrorist groups trying to avoid being tracked.
Pete Thompson, a spokesperson for YWAM, told the Independent on Saturday that JEMED was a partner organization.
"It is not known where he has been taken and no group has yet claimed responsibility for his abduction," Thompson said.
"His family have been informed and the U.S. government is tracking the situation," he added.
"We are aware of reports of the kidnapping of a U.S. citizen in Niger," a State Department official told The New York Times after the abduction late Friday. "The U.S. Department of State has no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas."