Israeli-Russian Doctoral Candidate Kidnapped in Iraq
Researcher Likely Captured by Kitaib Hezbollah
This is a developing story.
Elizabeth Tsurkov was abducted last March in Baghdad, at the start of the Ramadan holiday.
Elizabeth Tsurkov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia but immigrated to Israel at the age of four. She holds dual Israeli and Russian citizenship. She is a doctoral student in political science at Princeton University in the United States, specializing in jihadist groups. She has a master's degree in Middle Eastern history from Tel Aviv University, a master's degree in Political Science and Government from the University of Chicago, and according to her LinkedIn profile, a master’s degree in communication and international relations from Hebrew University.
Her primary research areas are Syria and Iraq. She has built a wide network of contacts and conducted research trips to Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East to support her work. Reports have stated that she has made approximately ten previous trips to Iraq. She is fluent in Arabic, Hebrew, and English. She also speaks Russian.
Like most Israeli citizens she served in the IDF. It seemed that after her service her politics changed. According to New Lines Magazine, she became a harsh critic of Israeli policies. She is highly critical of the three countries that might be involved in securing her release; Israel, Russia, and Iran.
After her military service, Tsurkov dedicated ten years of her life to working with human rights organizations in Israel and the Middle East. She had once been an assistant to Israeli politician and human rights activist, Natan Sharansky.
It is illegal for an Israeli citizen to enter an enemy country such as Iraq unless a special permit is attained from the government. This prohibition is part of Israel’s Prevention of Infiltration Law. One exception is Iraqi Kurdistan, which has good relations with Israel.
Iraq also prohibits its citizens from interacting with Israel in any way. The two countries have no diplomatic relations. Iraq has been openly hostile to the state of Israel since its inception and had fired upon it during the first Gulf War. A recent law makes any contact with Israel a transgression punishable by death.
Tsurkov entered Iraq using her Russian passport, apparently on her initiative.
Ties to the Mossad?
This is unlikely and denied by Israeli officials. Entities opposed to Israel dispute this claim. A search of LinkedIn, reveal some posts that consider her to be a propagandist for the Israeli Government. Some view her as a spy. For some time, many in Iran and many Iraqis, have suspected there to be several Israeli spies in the Kurdish stronghold of Erbil. However, Iraqi officials have said they have not found evidence of an Israeli Mossad presence there. Her connections with Kurds and the good relations between Kurdistan and Israel do raise questions and even more conspiracy theories.
According to media reports, she was sincerely interested in the region and the lives of the people she studied.
Ties to the Muslim Brotherhood?
Elizabeth Tsurkov was a non-resident fellow at the New Lines Institute and a contributor to New Lines Magazine.
New Lines Institute states that it is a nonpartisan think tank. It was founded by Ahmed Alwani.
Despite claims of nonpartisanship, New Lines might not be as impartial as one might imagine.
In 2020, an independent researcher referenced a report that indicated the New Lines Institute may be associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. On further investigation, it was found that Ahmed Alwani is also the Vice President of the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT).
According to Global Muslim Brotherhood Watch the IIITs President, Hisham Altalib, is the Founder of the US branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Further connections between the IIIT and the Muslim Brotherhood were reported by the National Review in 2010.
The Muslim Brotherhood is a religious and political organization that was designated as a terror group by the Egyptian Government. The Sunni group was founded in Egypt in the 1920s and, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, has grown to be the most influential Islamic group in the world.
This does not implicate Ms. Tsurkov as belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood but it does raise more questions about New Lines Institute and its neutrality.
News Lines Magazine’s last contact with Ms. Tsurkov was on March 19, 2023. According to reports, the staff were aware of her abduction but decided, out of respect for her family, not to publish that information.
She had expressed to them her desire to take a break from fieldwork so she could focus on her dissertation. New Lines magazine had reported that she was aware of the potential dangers of traveling to the region, but she was personally opposed to prisoner swaps. That was a very ominous statement.
Social Media PresencePrescence
Her LinkedIn profile only showed her accomplishments but no posts. Her Twitter account was very active. She has 79.7K followers. Her last post was on March 21, 2023. Her Twitter username is @Elizrael. This name hints at a relationship with Israel. Her posts were in English, Arabic, and Hebrew which, coupled with her Twitter username would give one sufficient evidence to assume she was Jewish or Israeli. This might have played a role in her abduction. She had posted some personal details about her back health which could have led someone tracking her to find her through local hospital records.
She also maintains a personal website, elizabeth-tsurkov.net, that showcases her articles, research, and interviews.
Area of Research
The Times of Israel reported that she was visiting Iraq to continue her research on Iran-backed factions in Baghdad, particularly the movement of Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr. Several pro-Iranian militant factions have been absorbed by the Iraqi military but still maintain some allegiance to Iran. This might have also played a part in her abduction.
Last Known Whereabouts
The Sun reports that when asked whether she was worried about dangers because she is Israeli, she replied:
“Nah. I travel with my Russian passport and wear a big cross. They all think I’m a Russian Christian.”
This misdirection did not seem to be much help.
According to the New Arab, local sources said:
"An investigative team was formed by the National Intelligence and Security Service and the Interior Ministry's Intelligence Department, and after investigation and search operations, an Iranian national suspected of links to the kidnapping was arrested.” A photo of the suspect can be seen in the article.
Sources reported that she was last seen in the Karada region of Iraq and was having something to drink at the Ridhaalwahn Café in the Karada area.
Karada is a historic neighborhood in central Baghdad. It is home to a diverse population of Muslims, Christians, and a very small number of Jews. The Jewish community in Iraq dates back over 2,500 years. Before 1948 the community numbered approximately 150,000. Today its numbers have dwindled to near zero due to anti-Semitism and anti-Zionist doctrine which resulted in discrimination, destruction of Jewish shops, pogroms, and emigration.
Despite being home to restaurants, shops, and entertainment, Karada is no stranger to violence. In 2016 a bomb struck a busy street in the Karada neighborhood, killing at least 142 people. Most were shopping, socializing, or visiting local restaurants at the time.
The Karada area is considered to have a large Shia population. Many believe the neighborhood is very much under the influence of Iran-allied armed factions. This might explain why she was meeting contacts there and why it was the location chosen by her abductors.
It is believed that Elizabeth Tsurkov was kidnapped by Kataib Hezbollah, which translates to “Brigades of the Party of God”. The group is also known as the Hezbollah Brigades. In a recent statement, Kataib Hezbollah said it was doing everything it could to uncover the fate of "Zionist hostages or hostages" in the country. The group denies involvement in the abduction.
This group is not the same as Hezbollah in Lebanon but is affiliated with Iran.
Kataib Hezbollah (KH) is a radical Iraqi Shiite paramilitary group backed by Iran. KH was established in 2007 by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis who had previous ties to the Badr Organization and close relationships with Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). With Hezbollah's help, KH received training and weapons, while the IRGC played a direct role in its formation. Under Muhandis's leadership, KH established smuggling networks to transport Iranian weapons into Iraq. The United States designated KH as a terrorist organization in 2009.
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was assassinated in 2020, along with the commander of the Iranian Quds Force, Qasim Sulemani.
KH is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) or al-Hashd al-Shaabi, in Arabic. The PMF is a state-sponsored umbrella group composed of approximately 50 militias with differing ideologies. It was formed to counter the Islamic State (IS) in 2014. PMF's partnership with these militias helped liberate IS-held areas, but it has been criticized for promoting Shia militias and Iranian proxy groups and committing atrocities against civilians. Muhandis became the de facto leader of PMF in addition to leading KH, which became PMF's dominant 45th brigade. Despite a call to separate armed groups from politics, the PMF has been able to maintain much of its independence in Iraq.
KH is one of the most powerful Iran-backed groups within the PMF. Alongside other influential groups, such as Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization, KH holds influence over PMF's decision-making body, the Shura Council, which answers to the IRGC. The IRGC continues to exert significant influence over KH's operations and provides the majority of its funding.
Rival Shia militant group: The al-Sadr Movement
48-year-old, Muqtada al-Sadr is an influential Shia cleric. He fled to Iran in 2008 but returned in 2011. He is a member of the Iraqi parliament whose faction won 73 of the 329 seats in parliament in 2021. Presently he focuses on politics amid a fluid and unstable Iraqi political landscape.
His father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, was assassinated in 1999 allegedly by agents of Sadaam Husein. He chose to follow in his father’s footsteps.
The Associated Press reported that he recently applauded the previously mentioned Iraqi law making any contact with Israel punishable by death. The fact that Ms. Tsurkov has Israeli citizenship makes the fact that she went to Iraq to research his group seem more dangerous.
In 2003, the Shia cleric established a militia called the “al-Mahdi army” (Jaysh Al-Mahdi-JAM) to “liberate Iraq”. Jaysh Al-Mahdi is named after the Shia Redeemer, the “Vanished Twelfth Imam”. The Twelfth Imam is expected to rise and lead the faithful to a final battle on Judgement Day. In 2014, he changed the group’s name to Saraya Al-Salam, the “Peace Companies.”. The group was considered one of the most dangerous in Iraq till 2008. It is also a member of the PMF.
Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Al-Sadr was one of the first to support Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's initiative to integrate the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) into the military.
According to a 2022 report by Shafaq news he called for the separation of the PMF from the armed factions.
Kurdistan24 reported al-Sadr as saying the “PMF must be cleaned from the corruption that protects the reputation of the Jihadists, nationalizes it, and strengthen Iraq and its security forces.” It is important to note that the Kurdistan region is frequently attacked by pro-Iranian forces.
Political Rivals in Iraq
Although many of its members have been absorbed into the Iraqi military, the PMF is still a major force in Iraq. Kataib Hezbollah is one of its most powerful militias. Al-Sadr has significant political influence in Iraq and is seen as a potent rival.
Could this have played a part in the abduction of Elizabeth Tsurkov? Were members of Kitaib Hezbollah trying to send a message to al-Sadr that his group could not protect one researcher? Was it a way to present his movement as weak? If she was known to be an Israeli citizen, with all the controversy that entails, would it make al-Sadr look hypocritical in the eyes of his supporters? He was, after all, one of the loudest supporters of the Iraqi law prohibiting any contact with Israel.
What could Kitaib Hezbollah benefit from this abduction? They have denied having any part in Ms. Tsurkov’s abduction. It is safe to assume that if they were to gain political clout from this act, they would be happy to admit it. Were other forces at play? Ones with different motives?
As is characteristic of Middle Eastern intrigue there are still many questions yet to be answered. Ultimately, we must hope that Elizabeth Tsurkov is returned to her family soon and unharmed.