Explainer | Who Is Kidnapped Researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov?

By | Jul 21, 2023
Israel, Latest
Elizabeth Tsurkov in a red sweater. Behind her the Baghdad cityscape with the flags of Israel, Iran, the U.S., Iraq, and Russia superimposed.

Israeli-Russian researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov, who was kidnapped from a cafe in Iraq several months ago, is being held by Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Iraq, Israel’s government confirmed on July 5. A doctoral student at Princeton University, Tsurkov has been held by the insurgent group since March.

Who is Elizabeth Tsurkov?

Tsurkov, 36, is a PhD candidate at Princeton. Holding degrees from the University of Chicago, Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tsurkov researches politics in the Middle East, and the Syrian uprising and civil war in particular.

Tsurkov was born in Russia to Jewish political dissidents who immigrated to Israel before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and she speaks fluent Arabic, English, Hebrew and Russian. Although Tsurkov is an outspoken critic of the Israeli government, The New York Times has reported that Tsurkov’s interest in Middle Eastern politics developed during her mandatory service in the Israeli military.

She is also a fellow at New Lines Institute, a Washington, DC-based think tank, and a research fellow for the Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli-Palestinian think tank based in Jerusalem. The last time her New Lines Institute colleagues heard from her was on March 19, when she reportedly said that she had had enough of field work and wanted to return home to write her doctoral dissertation.

Why was Tsurkov in Iraq?

Using a Russian passport, Tsurkov reportedly traveled to Iraq to pursue academic research for her doctorate in political science at Princeton University. 

The university’s Global Safety & Security department, which leads the university’s “international crisis response efforts,” has stated that Princeton students are not allowed to conduct academic research in Iran or Iraq. However, Xiyue Wang was detained in Iran in 2016, when he was performing academic research for his Princeton PhD. He was held for over three years. Wang sued Princeton in 2021 for “severe personal injuries and other irreparable harm, The Daily Princetonian reported, and claimed that Princeton encouraged his travel to Iran, prioritized its reputation over his safety and failed to provide him with adequate support after his release.

Tsurkov could not have entered Iraq using an Israeli passport, as Iraq and Israel do not have diplomatic relations and Iraqi law criminalizes activities that encourage normalized ties with Israel. 

Tsurkov has visited Iraq more than 10 times. According to her personal website, her academic work is based on a network of contacts that she has cultivated since 2009, which includes civilians, activists, combatants and communal, political and military leaders. “My research is informed by the desire to understand and convey the points of view and experiences of people in the Middle East, and highlight abuses by powerful actors, whether they are dictatorial regimes, armed groups or foreign countries intervening in the region,” Tsurkov’s website states.

In addition to academic articles, in which she often has written about political and economic conditions in Syria and other countries in the Middle East, Tsurkov has penned several analyses for media outlets such as The Guardian, The Forward and Haaretz, critiquing the actions of Israel, Russia and the U.S. in the region.

Why was she kidnapped?

Kataib Hezbollah, which was founded in 2007, has carried out major attacks on American outposts in Iraq, three of which occurred in 2008 and several of which have occurred since 2014. Israeli journalist and Moment Institute fellow Nathan Guttman says that holding Tsurkov might enable the militia, which was designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. in 2009, to gain leverage against the U.S. and Iraq. “For them, kidnapping her can help down the road—or with any kind of deal with Americans—to extract something from the Iraqi government, which is backed by Americans.”

Iraqi sources told Asharq Al-Asat, an Arabic newspaper based in London, that Tsurkov was kidnapped to pressure Israel to release an Iranian prisoner, and that Russia is mediating talks between the countries, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Tsurkov is the second Princeton student to be held in the Middle East during the last five years. When Wang traveled to Iran to learn Farsi and perform academic research in 2016, he was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in Iran’s Evin Prison, in which surviving inmates say they were blindfolded, kept in solitary confinement, beaten and tortured. He was released in a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Iran in December 2019.

Other academics have been detained by Iran in recent years, including Kylie Gilbert-Moore, an Australian lecturer, who was held in Evin Prison for over two years until she was freed in 2020 after a prisoner swap. 

Tsurkov’s circumstances differ from these in several ways. Tsurkov was seized in Iraq, not Iran; she was kidnapped by a paramilitary group—though it is supported by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a branch of Iran’s military—not arrested by Iran’s government on specific charges.

Who might be able to free Tsurkov?

Due to the lack of diplomatic ties between Israel and Iraq and Tsurkov’s position as a graduate researcher at an American university, Guttman believes that the U.S. will have to step in and find a solution to bring Tsurkov home. “I think any solution eventually will go through Washington,” he said.

Although U.S. military forces have largely left Iraq after the American invasion in 2007, there are still around 2,500 troops stationed in the country. i24NEWS, an Israeli television channel, reported on July 17 that Tsurkov’s kidnappers have tried to transport her to Iran. If Kataib Hezbollah is still holding Tsurkov in Iraq, the U.S. could coordinate with Iraq to work towards locating Tsurkov. 

“The U.S. has clout in Baghdad,” Guttman said. “Iraq needs the U.S. to be on its side for financial, diplomatic, and security issues, so I think that’s where America can use its leverage… It’s just a matter of making sure that, right now, America does make it a priority and is willing to go ahead and pay the price.”

The U.S. government, however, has commented little on Tsurkov’s capture. The Department of State said in a statement on July 5: “We are aware of this kidnapping and condemn the abduction of private citizens. We defer to Iraqi authorities for comment,” The New York Times reported.

Israel’s government stated on July 5 that it holds Iraq responsible for Tsurkov’s safety and well-being. On July 7, Iraq announced it opened an investigation into her whereabouts, the Associated Press reported. 

Russia has also said little about Tsurkov, and its next moves are unclear.  

“It could help, having the Russians pressure and get involved as well,” says Guttman. “It could create some kind of competition between the U.S. and Russia with getting credit and making sure that she’s released.”

Some journalists on Twitter have accused Tsurkov of being an Israeli spy; her friends told American news website The Daily Beast that those allegations are “completely ridiculous and offensive.” A senior Israeli official has similarly refuted claims that Tsurkov is a member of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. 

Guttman also points to Tsurkov’s prominent presence on social media and in academia to reject allegations that Tsurkov is Israeli intelligence. “It doesn’t seem that there’s any hole in her biography that could indicate she somehow worked for the Mossad or for the Israeli intelligence without us knowing,” he said.

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