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Israeli researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov kidnapped for months in Iraq

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

A Princeton University doctoral student has been kidnapped in Iraq. Elizabeth Tsurkov is a 36-year-old Israeli researcher. She's a fellow at the Newlines think tank and frequent Mideast commentator interviewed in media, including NPR.

ELIZABETH TSURKOV: The conflict in Syria is matched by its brutality to some extent with the Ukrainian one, unfortunately. But in other aspects, it is quite different.

ESTRIN: She's a colleague of Princeton journalism professor and former NPR international correspondent Deborah Amos, who's with us from The Hague. Hi, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS: Hi.

ESTRIN: And let's just start by saying that Elizabeth Tsurkov's sister has sent NPR a statement saying her sister was kidnapped in the middle of Baghdad. They see the Iraqi government as directly responsible for her safety, and asking for her immediate release from unlawful detention. Deb, what do you know about what she was doing in Iraq?

AMOS: She was doing field research. She was getting her Ph.D. at Princeton. And, you know, she stayed with me in the fall of 2021, and that's when she was doing her coursework. Then she was off to the region to do interviews, to do observations. You know, she was traveling around the Middle East. She'd let me know she was OK by sending me dog videos from Twitter. And then she disappeared somewhere around mid-March. I didn't hear from her and didn't really know what had happened, and it came to me through other journalists that she was kidnapped. And so yesterday was the first time that we got news of Elizabeth when this story broke.

ESTRIN: And what do we know about who has kidnapped her?

AMOS: It's a Shia militia. It is called Kataib Hezbollah. Not really affiliated so much with the Lebanese branch, Hezbollah, but more with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. That's not a great group to be kidnapped by if you are an Israeli and even a Russian citizen. I think Elizabeth felt somehow that she understood how to keep herself safe. She didn't take very many risks. But other journalists have been saying for months now that Iraq had become a more dangerous place.

ESTRIN: Yeah. You mentioned she's - holds an Israeli citizenship and a Russian citizenship. Now, many of us Middle East journalists know Elizabeth Tsurkov, have interviewed her. You know her well. Tell us more about her and her work.

AMOS: First of all, she's the daughter of Russian dissidents. She is a fluent Arabic speaker. Her dissertation was about sectarianism in the Middle East. I got to know her. She did an extraordinary thing. She organized women, Middle East correspondents, think tankers, academics, U.N. people in these groups. And we talk all day long. I met people that I wouldn't have met in any other way, but Elizabeth organized us.

ESTRIN: Deb, what does her kidnapping say about Iraq today?

AMOS: Well, that is a very interesting question, Daniel. And for many of us who watch say it tells you that there is real turmoil in Iraq. This is inter-Shia politics in Iraq. And it's hard to know exactly why she was kidnapped. This is a very, very controversial group. The U.S. government says it is a terrorist organization. Back a few years ago, they mounted a full-out attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. This happened in December of 2019. And January 3, 2020, is when the U.S. carried out a targeted assassination of Qassim Suleimani. He is also part of the Revolutionary Guard in Iran. And it was said that he had ordered the attack on the U.S. Embassy with this particular group.

And so the fact that they picked her up, you know, says that there's some internal fighting going on in Iraq that we don't even know the details of. But I think that is what it's a sign of. The fact that they did not take her to Iran is the best news that we've had. Now, we can't confirm it, but when the Israeli government made their statement, they said she was still in Iraq. And that is good news in a story that has very little good news.

ESTRIN: Princeton journalism professor and former NPR international correspondent Deborah Amos speaking about Princeton doctoral student Elizabeth Tsurkov, who has been kidnapped in Iraq. Thanks, Deb.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.