An American missionary kidnapped in Niger may have been taken by Islamic jihadists with ties to drug traffickers.
Jeffrey Woodke was abducted last Saturday when a group of armed men burst into his home in the town of Abalak, killing his guard and one other individual.
Niger's Interior Minister told AFP that his forces had tracked the kidnappers across the border into Mali, heading towards a region controlled by an al-Qaeda linked group known as The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa or MUJAO.
"He was probably kidnapped by the MUJAO or handed over to the MUJAO by those who abducted him," Mohamed Bazoum said.
MUJAO's leaders are reportedly known to have connections to drug traffickers in the Sahel region.
This part of Western Africa often faces attacks from al Qaeda-affiliated extremist groups, Nigerian-based extremists Boko Haram, and other criminal gangs who kidnap foreigners and end up demanding huge sums of money in ransom.
An Australian doctor kidnapped in February in Burkina Faso and a Swiss woman kidnapped in Mali both remain in captivity. Woodke's kidnapping is the first of any American in Niger.
"We are aware of reports of the kidnapping of a U.S. citizen in Niger," a State Department official said shortly after his abduction was made public. "The U.S. Department of State has no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas."
Woodke, who is from McKinlyville, California, lived in Niger since 1992, becoming fluent in several local languages, including Arabic.
A local resident who knew Woodke told a French news agency that he'd been warned about potential threats to his life.
"We tried many times to make him leave the area as he was more exposed than ever, but he refused, saying he wasn't afraid," the resident told AFP.
A source in Niamey told CBN News that Woodke was known for his work among the Woodabe, a people group in the Sahel region. He and his wife Else, a Holland native, started a literacy program and shared the Gospel among the natives.
"Please get the church to pray for him," the source said on condition of anonymity. "His work is mostly in the Abalak area, among the Woodabe and the Tuareg."
Just before his abduction, Woodke was listed as an instructor at Redwood Coast School of Missions, an arm of Arcata First Baptist Church in Arcata, California.
"Jeff has spent over a quarter of a century involved in missions ministry," Redwood stated on its website. "He has committed the past 25 years of his life to a ministry he founded in Niger amongst a number of unreached people groups."
Redwood Coast School of Missions has since taken down his profile.