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Grad student kidnapped by Iraqi militia while conducting research for dissertation

Elizabeth Tsurkov is the second Princeton graduate student to be held in the Middle East in the past five years.

Elizabeth Tsurkov.png
Courtesy of Elizabeth Tsurkov’s public website

Months after Elizabeth Tsurkov GS disappeared in Iraq, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Wednesday, July 5 that Tsurkov, a Ph.D. candidate in the politics department, was being held by the Shiite militia Kataib Hezbollah. The group is linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and is classified as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State.

Tsurkov disappeared in March from an area frequented by international citizens in Baghdad, Iraq. The New York Times confirmed with her family that she was in Iraq conducting research for her Princeton dissertation.


“Elizabeth Tsurkov is still alive and we hold Iraq responsible for her safety and well-being,” Netanyahu’s office said. Tsurkov holds passports from both Israel and Russia.

The University shared a brief statement at around 6 p.m. Wednesday on social media, stating, “Elizabeth is a valued member of the Princeton University community. We are deeply concerned for her safety and wellbeing, and we are eager for her to be able to rejoin her family and resume her studies.” 

Until the Israeli government statement, Tsurkov’s abduction was not publicly known, though her family was aware, according to the New York Times. Colleagues at the New Lines Institute, a non-partisan think tank based in Washington, D.C, where Tsurkov is a fellow, found out about the kidnapping in late March but decided against making a public statement “out of respect for her family’s wishes.” One colleague told Haaretz that they have reached out to the University for assistance.

“What followed Liz’s kidnapping were months of public silence but nonstop efforts to learn more about her situation,” New Lines Institute stated in an article in their magazine on Wednesday. “We sought information and wanted to help bring her back. We reached out to contacts on the ground and friends in the media. We reached out to American and foreign officials, and we badgered Princeton University. We will continue to do all of this.”

Tsurkov started at Princeton in 2019 and specializes in the Middle East, including Iraq, Syria, and Israel-Palestine. The University has boosted Tsurkov’s analysis of Syria in the past, posting about Tsurkov’s contribution to the Washington Post about Syrian elections. The New York Times noted that Tsurkov has worked extensively in the Middle East and traveled to Iraq over 10 times.

Dean of the Graduate School Rodney Priestley addressed the kidnapping in an email to the graduate student body Wednesday evening, expressing a similar sentiment to the University’s statement and adding, “Since Elizabeth’s disappearance, we have been in close communication with a member of her family to offer support. Our response has been guided by a focus on Elizabeth’s safe return home to those who love and miss her. Given the sensitivity of the situation, we don’t have other information to share at this time.”


Tsurkov is the second doctoral student to be held in the Middle East within five years. Another doctoral student, Xiyue Wang, was held in Iran for more than three years after his arrest in 2016 while traveling for research through the Department of History. In 2021, Wang sued the University for “severe personal injuries and other irreparable harm” after being detained in Iran for over three years. Wang’s lawsuit purported the University encouraged him to travel to Iran despite safety concerns and prioritized their reputation over his safety in fighting for his release.

Wang linked New Lines Magazine’s story about Tsurkov in a tweet on Wednesday.

Annie Rupertus is an associate News editor for the ‘Prince.’

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