With their reputation already tarnished, militant groups appear to have dealt themselves a self-inflicted wound by going after a schoolgirl who campaigned for girls' education.
Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old from the Swat Valley who rankled the Taliban with her assertion of every girl's right to education and is recovering in a British hospital, has become a rallying symbol not only in her native Pakistan, but across South Asia.
In the Indian city of Lucknow, with its storied Muslim heritage, girl students from all religious backgrounds staged a candlelight vigil on October 17th for Malala, who was shot October 9th by a gunman who boarded her school bus. Two fellow classmates were also injured in the attack.
On October 25th, more than 3,000 girls and boys drawn from all communities took part in a procession in downtown Kochi, Kerala. "The little girl in Pakistan has won a huge fan following," said Ameena Kuttimeena, a state government education service official, in comments to Khabar South Asia.
At home, Malala's story has galvanised Pakistani public opinion. Prayer vigils were held across the country and thousands attended rallies of solidarity in capital Islamabad and Karachi.
Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, accused the attackers of cowardice and said they "have no respect even for the golden words of the prophet".
According to Pir Haider Ali Shah, an MP from the Awami National Party, Pakistanis from all walks of life have come together in condemnation of the shooting.
"Across-the-board condemnation of the attack on this teenage girl is unprecedented," he said. "The level of unity shown by the Pakistani nation over the incident is equal to the one observed when a massive earthquake hit northern regions of the country in 2005."
Taliban, al-Qaeda on the defensive
The reaction appears to have come as a surprise to extremist groups operating in South and Central Asia, putting them on the defensive.
The Taliban issued a seven-page statement insisting that the attempted murder of Malala was permissible under Islam, and threatening to kill journalists who it said were casting the terror group in a negative light. Al-Qaeda followed suit days later with a letter that said the girl had been targeted because she "made fun of jihad" and was too close to the West.
Uzbek militants operating in North Waziristan, meanwhile, have been issuing pamphlets asserting that Islam "allows punishment of women involved in crimes".
"Malala had committed the crime of using insulting language against the Mujahideen so the attack on her was very much justified," the militants said.
But the use of Islam to condone an assault on a minor-age schoolgirl has been hotly disputed by Islamic authorities, including religious scholar and former Pakistani Minister for Religious Affairs Hamid Saeed Kazmi. Islam, he explained to Khabar, does not allow such attacks. "Killing an innocent girl cannot be justified in Islam," he said.
Maulana Tayyab Qureshi, caretaker of the historic Mohabbat Khan Mosque, also cast doubt on the militants' claims. "I don't feel the brutal attack on the minor girl Malala and her other schoolmates could be justified under Sharia," he said, adding that it is "highly uncalled for and unjustified".
"I don't know how the attackers, whosoever they are, can justify it but it would be just a personal justification and had nothing to do with Islam and its teachings," Qureshi remarked.
Activist: Malala close to people's hearts
Pakistanis reacted strongly to the shooting because they see Malala as a symbol of girls' right to education, according to Qamar Naseem, a business executive who also chairs the End Violence Against Women and Girls Alliance, a group of civil society organisations.
The people of Pakistan hold Malala close to their hearts and view her as a torchbearer for emancipation, he told Khabar.
Asked whether the attack would further damage the reputation of the Taliban, Qamar said: "To a very large extent! I would say the masses' reaction to the attack and the brutal attempt itself had badly tarnished the Taliban's image, which was already on the verge of decline due to their vicious acts of violence and barbarism."
"The seven-page explanation and their repeated clarifications with different justifications clearly shows the Taliban were panicked and were really in hot water over the Malala issue," Qamar added, describing it as a media and public relations disaster for the militants.
Indian analysts, meanwhile, say Malala's campaign on behalf of girls' education is drawing support from across the region.
"More education among women means greater insurance against radical thoughts creeping into young minds," said Shajid Aslam, a legislator from the eastern state of Bihar. "You find greater fundamentalism in feudal societies which deprive education to girls than in countries where girls have this right."
According to Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, Malala "can be a game-changer. The girls of all South Asia are praying for her."
"Through her brave struggle, Malala has injected new life into not only education, but all human values. Henceforth Taliban and all fundamentalists will be careful," Banerjee added.