The United States Government working with the Nigerian government rescued an American citizen abducted last week in Niger but held hostage in Nigeria, according to multiple sources.
The daring high-risk US military raid took place early Saturday morning in Sokoto State in Nigeria, sources familiar with the operation revealed.
The mission was undertaken by elite commandos as part of a major effort to free the US citizen, Philip Walton, 27, before his abductors could get far after taking him captive in Niger on October 26.
Fox News reported that it was the US Navy SEAL team 6 that conducted the raid and no American soldier was injured in the exercise.
The CIA provided intelligence leading to Walton’s whereabouts and Marine Special Operations elements in Africa helped locate him, a former US official said.
Then the elite SEAL Team 6 carried out a “precision” hostage rescue mission and killed all but one of the seven captors, according to officials with direct knowledge about the operation.
“They were all dead before they knew what happened,” another counterterrorism source with knowledge told ABC News.
A tweet by the US Mission in Nigeria on Saturday stated, “We thank the Government of Nigeria for its partnership and support of this mission.”
“We appreciate the support of our international partners in conducting this operation,” was part of a statement issued by the Pentagon.
President Donald Trump, who tweeted the development as a show of support, called it “a big win for our very elite US Special Forces”.
Trump further announced in a tweet; “Last night our country’s brave warriors rescued an American hostage in Nigeria. Our nation salutes the courageous soldiers behind the daring nighttime rescue operation and celebrates the safe return of yet another American citizen.”
And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “Thanks to the extraordinary courage and capabilities of our military, the support of our intelligence professionals, and our diplomatic efforts, the hostage will be reunited with his family. We will never abandon any American taken hostage.”
White House Press Secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, was quoted as saying the decision to pull the trigger on the operation was tough, “but ultimately the president prioritises the safety of American citizens”.
“They’re very tough ones to make, because you’re right, it has to be conducted just perfectly. But the President always puts the American interest first. It takes a lot of planning.
“A lot of keeping things quiet until that moment, when you get the go ahead and I was talking to some of our soldiers and they said to me, we pray to get the green light, “McEnany said.
Eric Oehlerich, an ABC News consultant and retired Navy SEAL, said Walton was “lucky” that such a mission was possible such as short time after he was abducted, when others have been held for years.
“Men in these top-tier special forces units train their entire adult lives to be ready when called upon, hostage rescue operations are inherently dangerous,” he said. “Those men put someone else’s life above their own, they do so selflessly….it’s an illustration of utter commitment.”
A former US counterterrorism official emphasized generally how long the odds are for rescue in the “highly dangerous” missions — less than 30%. But the official said that it’s crucial to act as quickly as possible so that hostages don’t wind up in the hands of al Qaeda or ISIS.
“The longer a hostage is held the harder it is to find an exact location to be able and conduct a rescue operation,” the official said.
US and Nigerien officials had said that Walton was kidnapped from his backyard last Monday after assailants asked him for money. But he only offered $40 and was then taken away by force, according to sources in Niger.
Walton lives with his wife and young daughter on a farm near Massalata, a small village close to the border with Nigeria.
Niger lies in the heart of the vast Sahel region, which is struggling with a jihadist insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes.
Nigerien and American officials told ABC News that they believed the captors were from an armed group from Nigeria and that it was not considered terror-related. But hostages are often sold to terrorist groups.
Concern grew quickly after the kidnapping that an opportunity to rescue Walton could become much more dangerous if he was taken by or sold to a group of Islamist militants aligned with either al Qaeda or ISIS and American special operations commanders felt they needed to act swiftly before that could occur, said one counterterrorism official briefed on the hostage recovery operations.
Another American, Christian humanitarian aid worker Jeffery Rey Woodke, 60, has been held hostage for the past four years since being kidnapped in northern Niger by armed militants.