The mission was undertaken by elite commandos as part of a major effort to free the U.S. citizen, Philip Walton, 27, before his abductors could get far after taking him captive in Niger on Oct. 26, counterterrorism officials told ABC News.
The operation involved the governments of the U.S., Niger and Nigeria working together to rescue Walton quickly, sources said. The elite SEAL Team Six carried out the rescue mission and killed all but one of the captors, according to officials with direct knowledge about the operation.
U.S. 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 USD and was then taken away by force, according to sources in Niger.
MORE: American kidnapped in southern Niger, officials say
Walton lives with his wife and young daughter on a farm near Massalata, a small village close to the border with Nigeria.
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 it 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.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson confirmed after the kidnapping that an American citizen had been abducted in Niger and said the U.S. government was “providing their family all possible consular assistance.” The spokesperson declined to comment on the case, citing “privacy considerations,” but added, “When a U.S. citizen is missing, we work closely with local authorities as they carry out their search efforts, and we share information with families however we can.”
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.
Niger, home to 22 million people and three times the size of California, is one of many Sahel nations plagued by terrorism and instability, but its military has been a close U.S. partner in the fight against regional jihadist groups, including affiliates of both al Qaeda and ISIS.
Last week, a U.N.-backed donor summit raised $1.7 billion to support the region’s governments as Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned the humanitarian crisis is at a “breaking point,” with 13.4 million people in need of assistance.