The face of Jeremy Morlock, a young US soldier, grins at the camera, his hand holding up the head of the dead and bloodied youth he and his colleagues have just killed in an act military prosecutors say was premeditated murder.
Moments before the picture was taken in January last year, the unsuspecting victim had been waved over by a group of US soldiers who had driven to his village in Kandahar province in one of their armoured Stryker tanks.
According to testimony collected by Der Spiegel magazine the boy had, as a matter of routine, lifted up his shirt to reveal that he was not hiding a suicide bomb vest.
That was the moment Morlock, according to a pre-arranged plan, threw a grenade at the boy that exploded while other members of the rogue group who called themselves the “kill team” opened fire.
They would later tell military investigators that the boy, a farmer’s son, had threatened them with the grenade.
The pictures include a similar photograph of a different soldier posing with the same victim and a photograph of two other civilians killed by the unit.
There was no sign on Monday of the anticipated public outrage. But with Afghanistan on holiday for the Persian new year celebrations, and media outlets initially unable to get hold of the images, anger may yet build.
The US ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, recently confided to officials that he feared it might trigger the same kind of scandal as that at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, where images of prisoners being abused by US soldiers sparked anti-American protests.
For weeks the US government has been working to pre-empt any outrage, with top officials, including the US vice president Joe Biden, in talks with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president.
Despite being a setback in the propaganda war between the western coalition and its insurgent enemies, Nato will be relieved that for the time being only a tiny sample of a total collection of roughly 4,000 images and video clips have found their way into the public domain.
The publication of the photos will also mark the ultimate disgrace of the group of young US soldiers, who are currently facing military justice for killing innocent civilians for sport and mutilating their bodies by cutting off fingers and ripping out teeth to keep as trophies.
Morlock has turned on his former colleagues, agreeing to testify against them in return for a reduced jail sentence. Some of the activities of the group are already public, with 12 men currently on trial in Seattle for their role in the killing of three civilians. Morlock has told investigators that Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs was the ringleader. In videotaped evidence, he has said Gibbs would pick out a possible target with a comment such as: “You guys wanna wax this guy or what?”
Gibbs, if found guilty, could receive a life sentence.
Hans-Ulrich Stoldt, a spokesman for Der Spiegel, said the magazine had other, more graphic photos.
“We published three but not others, and we even pixilated those we did print so that the victims could not be identified,” Stoldt said. “We needed to document [the accusations] in some form, and were as restrained as possible.”