The top two Malaysian recruiters for the Islamic State extremist group, including a former rock star, were killed in Russian airstrikes in Syria in early 2019, the chief of Malaysia’s counterterrorist police branch told BenarNews.
Malaysian nationals Mohd Rafi Udin (also known as Abu Ain and Abu Awn al-Malisi), 53, and Wan Mohd Aquil Wan Zainal Abidin (a.k.a. Akel Zainal), 40, were killed in January and March, respectively, according to Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, who cited information from international counterparts and Malaysian sources in Syria.
Without giving specific dates, he said both men died in airstrikes in and around Baghouz, a town on the Iraqi border and the last Islamic State (IS) bastion in Syria that fell to U.S.-led coalition forces on March 23.
Akel was killed with his wife and children, along with a Belgian IS fighter, Ayob said.
“Information received said that Akel’s home in Baghouz was hit by a bomb during the airstrike in March. His wife and their two young children, aged two and three years old, were also killed,” Ayob told BenarNews.
Akel, who rose to fame in his country in the 1990s as a drummer in a rock band, Kumpulan Ukays, left Malaysia in 2014 to join Islamic State in Syria.
Malaysian authorities later identified him along with Rafi Udin and two other men as citizens who became the main Malaysian recruiters for IS after Muhammad Wanndy Mohamad Jedi, the country’s top IS recruiter, was killed in a drone attack in Syria in April 2017.
“The airstrike also took the life of a foreign fighter from Belgium who was at the time married to Mahmudah Ahmad, the widow of Muhammad Wanndy Mohamad Jedi,” Ayob said, referring to the strike that killed Akel and his family.
Rafi, whom the United States declared as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in August 2018, was killed while trying to escape from Baghouz, the Malaysian counterterrorist police chief said.
“We received information from our counterparts a few months ago. He was killed while trying to escape the airstrike with two of his friends who were also Malaysians. We also got confirmation from Malaysians who are still in Syria,” Ayob said.
Rafi, who left Malaysia to join IS in the Middle East five years ago, was a former senior member of Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM), a now defunct Malaysian militant group.
Last year, the U.S. Treasury Department designated him and two other Southeast Asians – Indonesian national Mohammed Karim Yusop Faiz and Philippine national Mohammad Reza Lahaman – as global terrorists.
The department said they were senior recruiters for Islamic State (IS), who had appeared in a propaganda video in 2016 that showed them apparently beheading three captives.
At present, 65 Malaysians who had traveled to Syria to join the IS ranks remain in that country, 40 of whom have expressed their wish to return to their home country, Ayob said.
Abdul Hamid Bador, the national police chief, said Malaysian authorities were working on bringing home the 40, who include women and children living at a refugee camp in northeastern Syria.
Malaysia so far has successfully repatriated a Malaysian woman and her two young children, who returned home in October 2018, according to Ayob.