Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley announced this week that U.S. troops had recently secured the release of a hostage in West Africa, coinciding with the freeing of a Catholic nun from New Orleans who had been kidnapped in Burkina Faso in April.
During a speech at a change of leadership ceremony for U.S. Special Operations Command, Milley went through a list of accomplishments and objectives achieved by SOCOM.
These included already notorious events like the killing of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and ISIS head Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. But Milley then made headlines by hinting at an even more recent mission, saying SOCOM “recovered” an unnamed hostage in the past 48 hours.
Sister Suellen Tennyson, 83, was taken hostage from a local parish late at night in April by unknown kidnappers in Yalgo, Burkina Faso. The Catholic archdiocese of New Orleans unexpectedly announced over Facebook that Tennyson was released and safe earlier this week.
After the WarZone first reported the connection between Milley’s remarks and Tennyson’s release, a U.S. Africa Command spokesperson sent a statement acknowledging they played some part.
“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,” the AFRICOM spokesperson said. “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.”
Although no government group would give the name of the secured hostage, local papers in New Orleans and Tennyson’s diocese announced that Tennyson was alive and recovering.
“She is safe,” Sister Ann Lacour, congregational leader of the Marianites of Holy Cross, told the official newspaper of the archdiocese of New Orleans on Tuesday. “She is on American soil, but not in America. She is safe. She was recovered (Monday) morning. We have spoken to her. She eventually will get back to the United States.”
“She’s totally worn out,” Ann added. “I told her how much people love her, and she doesn’t have anything to worry about. I told her, ‘You are alive and safe. That’s all that matters.’”
Tennyson’s abduction highlights security issues in the Sahel, as Burkina Faso struggles with militant groups and other violence. Tennyson had been a missionary in Burkina Faso since 2014 and previously worked in the New Orleans archdiocese for many years.
Jihadi groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State in the Sahel, the vast expanse south of the Sahara Desert, have long taken foreign hostages for ransom to fund operations.
In May, suspected jihadists abducted an Italian missionary couple along with their child and Togolese domestic worker in southern Mali. French journalist Olivier Dubois was kidnapped in April 2021 from Gao in the volatile country’s north.
American aid worker Jeffrey Woodke, who was kidnapped from Niger in 2016, is also among those who remain in captivity.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Zamone “Z” Perez is an editorial fellow at Defense News and Military Times. He previously worked at Foreign Policy and Ufahamu Africa, where he helped produce podcasts. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he researched humanitarian intervention and atrocity prevention in his thesis. He can be found on Twitter @zamoneperez.