The leader of a regional affiliate of the Islamic State terrorist outfit was reportedly killed in Afghanistan this week in an area along the border with Pakistan, intelligence officials in both countries confirmed to VOA.
Sanaullah Ghafari, the so-called slain emir of Islamic State Khorasan, or IS-K, has led the terrorist group since June 2020. He was widely known as Shahab al-Muhajir and was said to be in his late 30s.
Ghafari was traveling through the mountainous province of Kunar late Tuesday when Taliban security forces targeted him in an intelligence-led operation. Six other IS-K operatives were killed in subsequent raids in the area, Taliban sources said without sharing further details.
Pakistani intelligence officials also confirmed to VOA the elimination of the IS-K chief in Afghanistan under what they described as "mysterious circumstances." They hailed it as a "major success" against terrorist groups threatening the two countries.
VOA has reached out to the Taliban spokesperson in Afghanistan for comment on the killing of the regional terror chief but has not received any response.
Separately, sources in Kunar province, speaking to VOA on the condition of anonymity, confirmed to VOA Friday they had seen evidence of Ghafari's death.
Ghafari, a resident of the Afghan capital of Kabul, graduated from the city's central university.
The United States has offered a reward of $10 million for information leading to the identification or location of the IS-K leader.
A U.S. official familiar with the situation, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the matter, told VOA the U.S. could not confirm whether the terror leader had in fact been killed.
But the official denied any U.S. involvement, rejecting reports the U.S. carried out an airstrike.
U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East and South Asia, also told VOA it was unable to confirm Ghafari’s death.
“CENTCOM is aware of reports alleging that an ISIS-K leader was killed in Afghanistan earlier this week,” Major John Moore said in an email. “We have nothing additional to provide at this time.”
Publicly, American officials have denied working with the Taliban and have cast doubt on their ability to go after high-level terrorist targets in Afghanistan.
"The Taliban doesn't have the precision to go after individuals," CENTCOM's General Michael Erik Kurilla told U.S. lawmakers in March.
"They [Taliban] will do large, sweeping clearance operations," he said, noting such operations are only "disruptive to a point."
Taliban chief spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid rejected those assertions. He said that since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021, their security forces have arrested and imprisoned up to 1,700 IS-K militants and killed close to 1,100 others, including key commanders.
An official Taliban media outlet released an audio clip of Ghafari in April, in which he acknowledged his group's significant losses in counterterrorism operations by Taliban special forces.
"Only a few of our comrades are left, and their number can be counted on the fingers," Ghafari said in his Pashto language message to his group. He also spoke about the killings of key leaders in counterterrorism operations against IS-K in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan.
Pakistani intelligence sources said that Ghafari also directed IS-K terror attacks in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Iran, which all share borders with Afghanistan.
The IS-K leader was the mastermind behind last year's failed assassination attempt on Islamabad's acting ambassador in Kabul, Ubaid-ur-Rehman Nizamani.
IS-K took credit for the December gun attack that injured a Pakistani bodyguard. Nizamani escaped that attack unhurt.
The terrorist group has also claimed responsibility for the March 2022 suicide bombing of a Shi'ite Muslim mosque in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar that killed more than 60 worshipers.
Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.