Secret American Special Operations Mission Rescued A Hostage In Africa This Week (Updated)

Details remain limited, but the U.S. military has disclosed that American special operations forces recently recovered of hostage from somewhere on or near the African continent. Although any connection is unconfirmed at this time, representatives of the Catholic Church did announce today that Suellen Tennyson, an 83-year-old nun who was abducted in the northwest African country of Burkina Faso earlier this year, is now safe.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley first revealed the operation during a speech at a ceremony yesterday to mark the turnover of command of SOCOM from Army Gen. Richard Clarke to Army Gen. Bryan Fenton. In the course of those remarks, Milley ran through a list of notable U.S. special operations forces accomplishments under Clarke’s tenure.

“Under Rich’s command, SOCOM teams rescued a U.S. citizen in Nigeria just 96 hours after capture. They eliminated [Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Gen. Qassem] Soleimani, [and ISIS head Abu Bakr Al] Baghdadi,” the Chairman said. “And most recently, in the last 48 hours, they recovered another hostage.”

The operation in Nigeria that Milley mentioned was the rescue of Philip Walton, the son of a Christian missionary who had been captured in neighboring Niger in 2020. You can read more about how U.S. special operations forces successfully retrieved Walton, a mission that involved CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors supported by various tankers flying long-distance from a base in Spain, here.

In response to queries regarding this newly revealed operation, SOCOM directed The War Zone to contact U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). We have not yet received a response from AFRICOM, which is headquartered in Germany.

A spokesperson for the Joint Staff told The War Zone they had nothing to add to Milley’s remarks when contacted.

The Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans and Bishop Theophile Nare of the Kaya Diocese in Burkina Faso both subsequently issued statements about the release of Sister Tennyson. The nun is a member of the order of the Marianites of the Holy Cross who had been serving in a parish in Burkina Faso since 2014. She was abducted by unknown gunmen in April.

The FBI’s official notice regarding the kidnapping of Sister Suellen Tennyson in April.

A number of terrorist and militant groups, including regional franchises of both Al Qaeda and ISIS, operate in Burkina Faso and neighboring countries.

Sister Tennyson is not the only foreign hostage in captivity across Africa. As of 2020, there were at least six were being held by various groups just in the Sahel region of Africa, which separates the Sahara Desert from true Sub-Saharan Africa. The most well-known of these individuals is Jeffery Woodke, a Christian missionary aid worker, who was kidnapped in Niger in 2016. Woodke is currently understood to be in the custody of elements of Jama’at Nasr Al Islam Wal Muslimin, or JNIM, an Al Qaeda franchise based in Mali that was formed from the merger of a number of regional terrorist groups in 2017.

In 2017, then-AFRICOM commander Marine Corps Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who has since retired, said that a botched counter-terrorism operation in Niger that left four American service members and many more Nigerien troops dead – which you can read more about here – was related to the efforts to rescue Woodke. A subsequent exhaustive investigation that ABC News conducted, which resulted in a documentary called 3212 Un-Redacted, found no evidence to substantiate that, and many questions still remain about that incident.

In November 2021, Woodke’s wife, Els Woodke, publicly lambasted U.S. government efforts to secure her husband’s release and said that American authorities were impeding her efforts to raise money to pay a multi-million dollar ransom. A U.S. official told the AP in response to her remarks that the U.S. government’s policy of taking all steps to deny hostage takers concessions, such as ransoms, “does not preclude the United States government from helping hostage families with private efforts to communicate with hostage takers.”

No matter what, it is certainly good to hear that there is at least one less hostage out there.

We will update this story as more information becomes available.

Update 9/1/22:

The War Zone has now received a statement from U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Timothy S. Pietrack, a spokesperson for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which confirms the operations did occur and provides additional details, but does not identity the hostage. The full statement is as follows:

On the afternoon of August 29, U.S. Africa Command personnel facilitated the safe turnover of an American citizen who had been held hostage by terrorists in a remote area of West Africa.

U.S. Africa Command would like to thank all of our African and international partners who provided excellent cooperation over the months leading up to this recovery, in particular, the government of Niger, who were critical to this effort.

The strong partnerships we’ve forged with our African and international partners enable us to respond to complex and shared threats.

Separately, the U.S. State Department told VOA that there had been a “release of a U.S. citizen in Niger who had been held hostage in West Africa.”

“This individual will soon be reunited with loved ones,” a State Department spokesman added in their statement to VOA. “It is the wish of the individual to remain private at this time, and we ask that all respect that wish.”

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Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.