Princeton student's kidnapping sheds light on terror group's ties to Iraqi government

Elizabeth Tsurkov was abducted in March 2023.

March 6, 2024, 6:22 AM

Elizabeth Tsurkov, an Israeli Middle East expert and Princeton political science student, loved posting on X, formerly Twitter.

Her social media posts praised protesters in Syria for their “immense courage,” called out authoritarianism in Russia, and even lauded anti-corruption protesters in her native Israel.

And then, on March 21, 2023, the posts stopped.

Undated photo of Elizabeth Tsurkov from her LinkedIn profile.
Elizabeth Tsurkov/LinkedIn

Tsurkov, 37, who was doing field studies in the Karrada district of Baghdad for her doctoral dissertation, was kidnapped by what Israeli and U.S. government officials say was Kataib Hezbollah, one of many Iranian-backed militia groups that in recent months have conducted more than 170 attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.

Tsurkov’s abduction, which happened while she was leaving a Baghdad café, reignited scrutiny over the deep ties between Kataib Hezbollah and the Iraqi government.

After Tsurkov’s kidnapping, Iraq did not immediately acknowledge her disappearance. But Iraqi officials, in a July statement to Reuters, said the government had launched an investigation into her abduction.

The Iraqi government repeatedly declined to speak to ABC News on the record about Elizabeth Tsurkov or Kataib Hezbollah.

PHOTO: People carry the coffin of Abu Baqir al-Saadi, a senior commander in Kataib Hezbollah during his funeral,  Feb. 8, 2024, in Baghdad.
People carry the coffin of Abu Baqir al-Saadi, a senior commander in Kataib Hezbollah during his funeral, Feb. 8, 2024, in Baghdad.
Picture Alliance/DPA via Getty Images

Proof of life

For months after Tsurkov’s disappearance, there was no word. No progress. No ransom demands. Tsurkov’s family didn’t even have proof she was alive.

But then, seven months after she was taken, a video showing a woman who appeared to be Elizabeth Tsurkov was broadcast on the Iraqi TV station Al Rabiaa. The woman had black, unkempt hair. She had dark circles under her eyes. And she read, in Hebrew, what Tsurkov’s family says was a coerced statement and falsely claimed she was both an Israeli spy and a CIA agent.

Emma Tsurkov, Elizabeth’s sister, called that claim “absurd.”

“She has never seen a power structure she did not want to criticize. She would be the worst suited person to be a spy ever in existence.”

Emma Tsurkov believes her sister was kidnapped by Kataib Hezbollah militants because she is an Israeli citizen. Israel and Iraq do not have formal diplomatic relations, so Elizabeth Tsurkov, who attends Princeton on a U.S. student visa, traveled into the country with a passport from Russia, a country where she also has citizenship.

Nearly a year since Elizabeth Tsurkov’s kidnapping, Emma Tsurkov has not given up hope her sister will be released.

“It's like I'm missing a limb, but no one can see it,” she told ABC News. “We're not twins, but I guess we're as close to twins as people who aren't twins can be, and I know in my gut that she's alive. I trust her to keep herself alive. And I know that she is trusting me to get her out of there.”

A car burns, following what the U.S. military says was a deadly U.S. drone strike on a Kataib Hezbollah commander, in Baghdad, Iraq, Feb. 7, 2024, in this screengrab from social media video.
Social Media via Reuters

Getting Elizabeth home

In her attempts to secure her sister’s release, Emma Tsarkov is pushing the United States to put pressure on the Iraqis because of what she says are significant, sometimes overlooked connections between the Iraqi government and the terrorist group holding Elizabeth, Kataib Hezbollah.

“The only thing standing between her and freedom is a stern phone call from Washington, D.C., to Baghdad, telling the Iraqi government ‘you need to get her out.’ This is not sustainable. She cannot stay there,” Emma Tsurkov told ABC News.

Kataib Hezbollah has an official role in the Iraqi government through its position in Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, a government-sponsored organization of militias often compared to a kind of Iraqi national guard.

The group is one of “at least four Iran-aligned militias that [have] attacked U.S. forces” while also being “part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of militias that receives funding from the Iraqi government,” according to a 2023 report by inspectors general for the Departments of State, Defense, and USAID.

“You don't have to be a rocket scientist to realize that you've got a dysfunctional formal Iraqi security establishment that has effectively been instrumentalized and co-opted by these militia groups,” Ranj Alaaldin, Director of the Crisis Response Council and a fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, told ABC News.

Founded in 2014, the PMF cobbled together numerous Iraqi militias and is most notable for its role in fighting ISIS. But several militias in the PMF, including Kataib Hezbollah, are supported by and have deep ties to Iran.

Alaaldin explains after the defeat of ISIS the influence of Kataib Hezbollah and similar militias only grew in Iraq with help from Iran, which experts say aims to use the groups to ultimately drive U.S. troops out of Iraq.

“As far as Iran and Kataib Hezbollah and the PMF are concerned, the U.S. presence in Iraq, U.S. forces, are the last remaining barrier to them imposing their influence and control on the country at large,” he said.

Despite ties to Iran and repeated attacks on American troops in Iraq, experts warn Kataib Hezbollah leaders continue to play a significant role in the PMF and thus the Iraqi government, including holding key official roles in the Iraqi military establishment.

“They are part and parcel of the Iraqi state and government. They are recognized forces within the Iraqi Constitution,” said Alaaldin, who added that relationship “presents a tricky conundrum for both the Iraqis but also the Americans, because it's not a very black and white picture.”

It’s a complex, geopolitical struggle that Emma Tsurkov is now forced to navigate. She says she will never give up on securing her sister’s release.

“I am never going to stop until I have her back. The only question is how many obstacles will I have to overcome to get her back?” Emma Tsurkov said.