Months after she was kidnapped in Baghdad, Russian-Israeli researcher and activist Elizabeth Tsurkov appeared in a video released on Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militias’ media platforms. In the video she spoke in Hebrew and stated she was an agent of both the US’s Central Intelligence Agency and Israel’s Mossad. She stated that she was operating in Iraq to sow division within the Shia community, which dominates the government and security forces (aawsat.com, November 14). Tsurkov has been held hostage for several months and her personal condition and general state are unclear. No group has claimed responsibility for her kidnapping, but the Israeli government accused Kata’ib Hezbollah of having committed the crime. Based in Iraq, Kata’ib Hezbollah is one of the largest Iranian-backed Shia militias (asharq.com, July 5; see TM, April 6, 2020).
Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shai al-Sudani’s Shia-led government stated that it had opened an investigation into the matter shortly after the kidnapping was confirmed by the Israeli government (al-Arabiya.net, July 7). However, militias enjoy significant power in Iraq. As a result, Bagdad is unlikely to succeed in forcing them to handle the hostage situation differently, especially with the Iranian-led “axis of resistance” taking an interest in the issue. This “axis” has Iraqi militias set up alongside Iranian proxies, such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis, facing off against the United States and Israel.
In the four-minute-long video, Tsurkov referred to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas and criticized the policies of Israeli government. She also called upon the families of hostages to convince the Israeli government to stop the war, stating that it was the only way to secure the release of the hostages taken by Hamas (arabicpost.net, November 13). Her case has since become part of the wider conflict in the Middle East.
A Public Kidnapping
Tsurkov was kidnapped from the Karrada district in Baghdad in March. Strangely, her abduction became public only when the Israeli prime minister’s office issued a statement in July, months later. Israel revealed that they knew she had been kidnapped in Baghdad, and declared that Iraq’s Shia-led government was responsible for her fate (timesofisrael.com, July 5).
Even without a clear claim of responsibility by any group, there are several indications that she was kidnapped by an Iranian-backed Shia militia. The last time she was seen free was when she left a well-known cafe in a district of Baghdad known to have a significant militia presence. Moreover, extremist Sunni groups like Islamic State were not suspects because they have been significantly weakened over the last few years. As such, they generally do not have the capacity to commit such acts. Only powerful militias have the ability to operate in public defiance of any possible opposition—or complacency—coming from government security forces. Moreover, militia sympathizers on social media platforms were quick to start accusing Tsurkov of being an Israeli agent (almayadeen.net, July 6).
Road to Baghdad
Tsurkov was born in Russia and migrated later with her family to Israel. Iraqi law bans Israeli citizens from visiting Iraq. The majority in the Iraqi parliament is vehemently against the normalization of relations between Iraq and Israel, and most of the media and general public are hostile to Israel. In this environment, Tsurkov seemed to have relied on her Russian background, using her ties to secure a visa to Iraq in the first place and introducing herself as such to Iraqis she met with as a part of her work in the country (ultrairaq.com, July 6).
Tsurkov’s Israeli identity, however, was not especially well hidden. She was known for her high-visibility progressive activism in Israel. For example, she appeared on Israeli television stations criticizing the policies of the right-wing Israeli government (arabi21.com, July 8). When her abduction became public, pro-militia activists, however, used a more complicated part of her past. They republished some of her old social media posts where she stated clearly that she served in an Israeli military intelligence unit (raialyoum.com, July 6).
Syria and Sadr
Before her kidnapping, Tsurkov had been focusing her research on Syria and the various groups that oppose Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Remembering her support for their fight against the al-Assad and his Iranian backers, when Tsurkov was kidnapped Syrian opposition voices stood in solidarity with her. On the other hand, supporters of Iraq’s Iranian-backed militias consider Tsurkov’s activism in Syria to be even more evidence of her purported goal to incite revolts against Iran and its allies (almayadeen.net, July 16).
In more recent years, Tsurkov shifted her interests toward Iraqi Shia factions, in particular examining anti-US Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his followers. Videos that surfaced after her kidnapping became public showed that she met with al-Sadr activists and members of his group. This elucidates a key wrinkle in her story, as well as Iraqi Shia politics as a whole: the divide between al-Sadr on the one hand and almost all other Shia militias on the other (al-Arabiya.net, July 7).
Activists in the groups that compete with al-Sadr for power and influence accuse his followers of being open to Israeli influence. Al-Sadr and his followers have always wanted to strike a difficult balance between being the standard bearers of the anti-US and anti-Israel movement while also being more rational and independent of Iranian influence. The Tsurkov affair provided another example of that paradoxical approach. Vengeful followers of al-Sadr launched a series of attacks on the local offices of their rivals, who themselves accused al-Sadr’s group of receiving and meeting with Tsurkov and, therefore, allegedly being open to a pro-Israel orientation (independentarabia.com, July 18).
Al-Sadr was angry when his faction failed to form a coalition government after winning most seats in the 2021 Iraqi elections. He ordered his followers to quit parliament and the vacuum was filled by his rivals from the other Shia militias, who are closer to Iran than al-Sadr (asharq.com, June 21, 2022). The Tsurkov saga now reveals how dominant those groups have become, exploiting their elevated positions within the government and its security forces to create a situation where their militias can act independent from the government without fear of repercussions. Kata’ib Hezbollah also dominates the leadership of the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Shabi), a collective of mostly Shia militias that enjoys a wide mandate in Iraq. Even if Tsurkov was not kidnapped by the Popular Mobilization Forces themselves, they would undoubtedly know what has been happening to her and by whom she was taken.