WASHINGTON - The United States is confirming the death of a high-ranking al-Qaida official in Afghanistan - only it appears the dead terrorist is not the group's second-in-command, as has been reported.
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the death of al-Qaida's Abu Muhsin al-Masri, saying U.S. forces provided support during the Afghan-led operation in the country's Ghazni province.
Later Monday, the White House offered praise for the Afghan operation, calling the successful raid against al-Masri "welcome news."
Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS) first announced al-Masri's death in a Tweet late Saturday.
In subsequent tweets, the NDS and Afghan officials described al-Masri as the number two official with the al-Qaida affiliate, al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).
The NDS also said al-Masri was close to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and that he had been living in Afghanistan under Taliban protection.
In response to the tweets from Afghanistan's NDS, U.S. National Counterterrorism Center Director Christopher Miller told the Reuters News Agency the killing of al-Masri "is a major setback" for al-Qaida.
He also said al-Masri's loss "highlights the diminishing effectiveness of the terrorist organization."
But multiple U.S. and international counterterrorism officials tell VOA, that while still significant, al-Masri's death is not the blow that has been depicted in some accounts.
Specifically, they say reports that indicate al-Masri was second in line to Zawahiri are wrong, confusing him with another al-Qaida official who sometimes uses the al-Masri alias.
They say the al-Masri killed in Afghanistan's Ghazni province is Abu Muhsin al-Masri, also known as Husam Abd al-Ra'uf, a senior leader who most recently had been assigned to work with the Taliban on operational cooperation and the coordination of safe havens for al-Qaida fighters.
These officials say al-Qaida's number two official, and possible successor to al-Zawahiri, is another al-Masri, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, also known as Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah.
While both men have been on the FBI's Most Wanted list, the State Department is offering up to a $10 million reward for information that brings Abu Muhammad al-Masri to justice.
In a series of tweets Sunday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani praised Afghan forces for the raid that killed Abu Muhsin al-Masri.
But Ghani warned the operation shows "terrorism still remains a huge threat to Afghanistan, the region and the world and that Taliban has not cut off their ties with other terrorist networks including Al-Qaida yet."
Some United Nations counterterror officials have warned the U.S. is underestimating al-Qaida's strength in Afghanistan.
Concerns Mount as US Seen Downplaying Al-Qaida Threat in Afghanistan International counterterrorism officials fear the White House, bent on bringing troops home from 19 years of war, is failing to recognize al-Qaida's strength and influence
A U.N. report issued this past July warned the group "is covertly active in 12 Afghan provinces," adding it likely commands 400 to 600 fighters."
The report said AQIS is believed to have up to another 200 fighters at its disposal, many providing support to the Taliban.