Israeli-Russian researcher missing in Iraq was repeatedly warned of dangers – report

Israeli TV says officials conveyed to Elizabeth Tsurkov fears for her safety before last visit; Iraqi TV airs ‘last known’ footage of Princeton academic before abduction

A screen grab from footage aired by Iraq's Alrabiaa TV that is said to show abducted Israeli-Russian researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov in a Baghdad cafe before her disappearance. (Screenshot from Twitter/used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
A screen grab from footage aired by Iraq's Alrabiaa TV that is said to show abducted Israeli-Russian researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov in a Baghdad cafe before her disappearance. (Screenshot from Twitter/used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The Israeli-Russian academic researcher believed to have been abducted in Iraq by a powerful radical Shiite group backed by Iran was reportedly warned a number of times against trips to the country amid fears for her safety.

In an unsourced report Thursday evening, Israel’s Channel 12 news said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a 36-year-old Israeli Middle East analyst who is said to have entered Iraq late last year and disappeared sometime in March, was given personal warnings in recent months about traveling to Iraq following repeated stays in the country.

An Israeli 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.

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 had previously conducted fieldwork in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, and other countries in the region, according to her website.

Without attributing the information, Channel 12 said former Iraqi prime minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, also the former head of Iraqi intelligence, sent a message to Washington and Moscow in recent months telling them that Tsurkov’s foreign nationalities, Russian and Israeli, and her work were “endangering her.”

This warning was conveyed to her personally by officials in Israel, including ahead of her recent visit, according to the report.

An undated photo of Elizabeth Tsurkov (from

A Western diplomat stationed in Iraq said that Tsurkov had arrived in Baghdad “at the beginning of December 2022.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office on Wednesday made public news of her abduction and accused Kataeb Hezbollah, a powerful faction of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) made up of Iran-backed former paramilitaries that were integrated into the Iraqi security forces, of holding Tsurkov.

Netanyahu’s office warned Iraq that it holds the country “responsible for her fate and safety.”

According to an Iraqi intelligence source, Tsurkov was kidnapped in Baghdad “at the beginning of Ramadan,” the Muslim fasting month which this year started on March 23. She was “leaving the Ridha Alwan cafe” in the capital’s Karada neighborhood, the New York Times reported, an area frequented by Westerners, “full of coffee shops, clothing stores, and markets.”

Israeli public broadcaster Kan reported that an Iraqi official who had been in touch with Tsurkov said she was abducted at her apartment in Karada, and that her roommate, an Iraqi researcher, was also taken. The unnamed roommate was released two weeks after the abduction and left Iraq shortly after, according to the report, which added that she recently returned.

Days after Tsurkov’s disappearance, a local Iraqi website reported that an Iranian citizen who was involved in her kidnapping had been detained by Iraqi authorities. The website claimed that Iran’s embassy in Baghdad was pressing for the man’s release and deportation to Iran.

According to the Kan report, the Iraqi source said he and others contacted Iraqi intelligence some two months ago regarding Tsurkov, before her disappearance was widely known.

“We were told that she is fine,” he said, “and that she is no longer in Iraq but has returned to the United States. They lied to us,” said the source, who according to Kan is a close associate of Al-Kadhimi, the former Iraqi premier who served from 2020-2022 and was widely seen as a US ally.

Current Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani is seen as more closely aligned with Iran.

According to the official speaking to Kan, Tsurkov was initially held by Iraqi intelligence and was then transferred to Kataeb Hezbollah. The Iranians, according to the official, are involved in the abduction.

Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, then a candidate for Iraq’s prime minister position, speaks during the parliamentary session to vote on the new government in Baghdad, Iraq, October 27, 2022. (Iraqi Parliament Media Office via AP)

Kataeb Hezbollah, a distinct entity from Lebanese Hezbollah, issued an ambiguous statement on Thursday that implied it was not involved in Tsurkov’s disappearance and said it was doing everything it could to uncover the fate of “Zionist hostage or hostages” in the country.

There has been no official comment from Iraq since Tsurkov went missing.

Netanyahu’s office said Tsurkov had entered 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.”

In a briefing with Israeli reporters on Wednesday, a government official said that Tsurkov was alive and in good health and that the Israeli government has been in touch with her family.

The official said Tsurkov was abducted because of her nationalities 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.

On Thursday, the Kan report also aired footage from an Iraqi TV channel that claimed to show the “last-known” footage of Tsurkov before her abduction, obtained from security cameras at a coffee shop. Tsurkov is accompanied by an unidentified man, as seen in the clip.

Another Israeli official has said that Israeli security officials are working together with their US and Russian counterparts to free Tsurkov as soon as possible.

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, the official 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.

Israeli news site Ynet on Thursday resurfaced an in-depth report (Hebrew link) published in July 2019 that Tsurkov wrote on Mosul under the control of the Islamic State terror group and the aftermath, in which she expresses some misgivings about being in the country.

The notorious terror group swept into Mosul in 2014 and came to control large parts of Iraq and Syria at the height of the self-described caliphate. By 2019, IS had lost much of that territory amid a US-led push to dislodge the group from Iraq and Syria.

In her article, Tsurkov wrote that she had been “ambivalent about visiting Mosul, partly due to the presence of Shiite militias in the city and attacks that Islamic State cells continue to carry out.”

“But the pleas of my good friend who lives in Mosul to visit and to eat her food won me over. On the way from Erbil [the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq], when I passed more and more militia checkpoints, I thought to myself how stupid it would be to run into trouble in Mosul just because I didn’t like refusing an invitation,” she wrote.

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