Elizabeth Tsurkov, an Israeli Middle East analyst who also holds Russian citizenship, is being held by a radical Shiite militia in Iraq, the Prime Minister’s Office announced on Wednesday.
Tsurkov visited Iraq “on her Russian passport at her own initiative pursuant to work on her doctorate and academic research on behalf of Princeton University in the US,” the PMO said in a statement.
She has been missing for several months, and is apparently being held by Kataeb Hezbollah, a paramilitary group backed by Iran, according to the statement. The group is a distinct entity from the Lebanese Hezbollah. The PMO added that Israel “views Iraq as responsible for her fate and safety.”
Tsurkov was visiting Iraq for research work on Iran-backed factions in the country, particularly the movement of Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr. A PhD candidate at Princeton, she previously conducted fieldwork in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and other countries in the region, according to her website.
Iraqi intelligence sources quoted by AFP said that Tsurkov was kidnapped in the Iraqi capital Baghdad “at the beginning of Ramadan,” which this year commenced on March 23, as she was leaving a cafe in the Karada neighborhood. She was “leaving the Ridha Alwan cafe,” the New York Times reported, in an area frequented by Westerners “full of coffee shops, clothing stores and markets.”
A Western diplomat stationed in Iraq said that Tsurkov had arrived in Baghdad “at the beginning of December 2022.” According to the Times, “she had undergone emergency back surgery in Baghdad and was recovering from the operation before she was kidnapped.”
An Israeli official said Tsurkov, 36, was abducted in Iraq because of her foreign nationalities, Russian and Israeli, and denied rumors in Arabic media that she was operating on behalf of Israeli intelligence.
“She is absolutely not a member of the Mossad, period, exclamation, underline,” the official said in a briefing with Israeli reporters, adding that Tsurkov was alive and in good health, and that the Israeli government has been in touch with her family.
Another government official confirmed on Wednesday that Tsurkov had made previous trips to Iraq, which Israel considers an enemy country. (The New York Times quoted Iraqi officials saying she had made more than 10 visits.) According to Israeli law, it is illegal for Israeli citizens to enter enemy countries, even on a foreign passport.
The official said that Israeli security officials are working together with their US and Russian counterparts to free Tsurkov as soon as possible.
The abduction has only been announced now because of reports in the foreign press, the official noted, adding that the publicity regarding her situation complicates efforts for her release. News of the abduction first appeared in English on June 14 in an article by Iran expert Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute on the growing power of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, and was picked up by other media outlets in the following days.
Tsurkov’s latest tweet is from March 21. Her mother said that she had no idea her daughter was in Iraq.
“The last time I heard from her was two months ago, she said she was in Turkey,” she told Hebrew-language media.
Tsurkov, who has served in the Israel Defense Forces and speaks English, Hebrew, Russian and Arabic, has two degrees in international relations and Middle East studies from Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University, and is a fellow at the American News Lines Institute think tank and the Jerusalem-based Israeli-Palestinian Forum for Regional Thinking.
She had also worked years ago for former Israeli cabinet minister Natan Sharansky, he said on Wednesday.
The New Lines Institute said that its last contact with Tsurkov was on March 19. She had reportedly told her colleagues that she “had enough of doing field research in the Middle East and wanted to return to Princeton.”
Just a week later, New Line’s staff were informed of her kidnapping in Baghdad, and decided not to publicize the event in the hope of a quick release and “out of respect for her family’s wishes,” according to an article published in the Institute’s magazine. That detail contradicted Tsurkov’s mother’s assertion that she did not know Elizabeth’s whereabouts.
According to the think tank, Tsurkov, “a fierce critic of Israeli national security policy,” will be released in a negotiation involving Iran, and probably also Russia, since she is a Russian national.
Reuters reported that the US State Department said it was aware of the abduction, and that it condemned the kidnapping of private citizens.
There has been no official comment from Iraq since Tsurkov went missing. Days after her disappearance, a local website reported that an Iranian citizen who was involved in her kidnapping was detained by Iraqi authorities. It said she was kidnapped from the Karada neighborhood and that Iran’s embassy in the Iraqi capital was pressing for the man’s release and to have him deported to Iran.
Some Iraqi activists posted a copy of a passport of an Iranian man at the time, claiming that he was involved in the kidnapping.
Kataeb Hezbollah (Hezbollah brigades) is one of the most prominent Iran-backed groups operating in Iraq, established in March 2003 following the US invasion of the country. The militia was recognized by the Iraqi government as a component of Iraq’s security forces in 2018 under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a group established with the aim to eradicate the Islamic State group.
Consequently, the militia today has become an integral part of the Iraqi security establishment while actually being subordinate to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), according to the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center.
Agencies contributed to this report.