Small Team Art: Counter-Terrorist Operations


Small team operations, as depicted in popular cinema, often show heavily armed commandos with night vision goggles, hands-free communication, flash grenades, and even small robots that can enter and detect hidden terrorists with minimal risk. The drills are well-practiced, and the neutralising of terrorists is mostly achieved effortlessly.

For Indian troops at the turn of the century, this was a fairy tale. They relied on overwhelming manpower, lights, and generators bought from regimental funds, rocket launchers, and even IEDs to bring down entire structures. But there were a few artists, who relied on instincts and the visualisation of their own troops and terrorist actions to achieve their aims, often with minimal collateral damage.

This is one such story. The names of people involved have been altered, and many details have been skipped. It is hoped that this story will help young officers learn the importance of not being pressured by time and the importance of keeping their curiosity alive in learning and writing down their own experiences in the art of small team operations.

The spring of 2000 in Kashmir was a season of deceptive tranquility. The Srinagar-Baramulla highway meandered through lush orchards, the trees heavy with fragrant apple and cherry blossoms, creating a postcard canopy of pink and white. The verdant shades of the foliage sparkled in the afternoon sunlight, a stark contrast to the underlying tension that permeated the region. Snow-capped Himalayan peaks loomed in the distance, their majestic serenity juxtaposed with the fraught atmosphere below.

Major Raj, dressed in well-worn combat gear with a bulletproof jacket, stood observing the three houses enclosed within the cordon. He scrutinised the largest of the three through his small non-military pattern binoculars—a sturdy brick house with an attached cowshed facing away from him. The other two, modest wooden shacks, seemed inconspicuous. Despite the fragrant air of blooming flowers, an unsettling stillness hung over the area. Women and children, garbed in faded salwar kameez and pherans, sat outside, their faces a mixture of apprehension and resigned acceptance. Though not unusual for a working day, the absence of menfolk added to the disquiet.

The teenage girl caught Raj’s eye. She sat with her middle-aged mother, tossing stones in the air with a carefree air that seemed out of place. Her scarf hung loosely over her shoulders, her demeanour playful—a stark contradiction in the otherwise tense scene. The women in the other two houses, younger and occupied with their small children, seemed indifferent to the soldiers, their weariness betraying a routine familiarity with such operations.

“Interesting,” Raj muttered, a familiar sense of foreboding creeping into his mind. His instincts, honed by years of counter-insurgency operations, rarely betrayed him. Beside him, Major Jassi, the senior ranking officer but less seasoned in such operations, had earlier deferred command for the operation to Raj, recognising his more extensive experience in such matters.

“What’s your assessment?” Jassi asked curiosity tinged with concern.

The teenage girl caught Raj’s eye. She sat with her middle-aged mother, tossing stones in the air with a carefree air that seemed out of place. Her scarf hung loosely over her shoulders, her demeanour playful—a stark contradiction in the otherwise tense scene.

Raj continued to look at the target house while observing the girl from the corner of his eyes. “Observe the girl. A teenage Muslim girl, head uncovered and playful in front of strangers, is highly unusual. There’s something amiss, but these women don’t seem unduly alarmed.”

Jassi nodded, trusting Raj’s judgment. “What do you propose?”

Earlier that afternoon, their tranquility had been shattered by a sudden call to action. The Jammu & Kashmir Police (JKP) had provided actionable intelligence of twenty terrorists hiding in a village near Pattan town, a stronghold of the Jamaat E Islami. Deputy Superintendent (DySp) Showkat, a man of fair complexion with a bushy Saddam Hussein-style moustache, had relayed the information. His urgency was palpable, and Raj, seasoned in the art of discernment, recognised this seemed a genuine intel and not the typical wild goose chase that occurred frequently.

Showkat had been a key figure in many operations in the unit’s previous location. His local knowledge had made him an invaluable asset. He had earned two out-of-turn promotions in operations previously. Raj recognised the dedication and steely resolve in the police officer, a small tribe that had emerged since the start of the insurgency in the valley.

The Rashtriya Rifles convoy, following a hasty rendezvous with Showkat’s Gypsy on a barren stretch of the National Highway, moved toward the target. Sitting next to the driver, Raj barely noticed the landscape as he rechecked his kit and briefed his Quick Reaction Team (QRT), a group he had meticulously groomed into a cohesive unit over the past two months. The ETA (Expected Time of Arrival) to the target house was approximately 30 minutes, and he knew the operation’s success hinged on swift, adaptive decision-making.

As they neared the target, Showkat’s Gypsy flashed its hazard lights—a pre-designated signal. The convoy came to a screeching halt, the bulletproof Caspir taking position near the uncemented brick wall that bordered the house. Raj swiftly altered the original plan, exiting the Caspir with his small team to secure the northern corner, leaving the bulk of the QRT under the command of Hav Malkit Singh.

“Fire only if you see armed gunmen,” Raj instructed, his voice low but firm.

With the rest of the cordon successfully established, Raj turned his attention back to the girl. “We need some menfolk from the mohalla, sir,” he said to Jassi. “Organise this through Showkat and Joginder sahib.”

Jassi complied, and soon, a group of local men assembled from their teens to their fifties. Raj selected four between the ages of 30 and 40, carefully assessing their body language. He instructed them to enter the suspect house after interacting with the women, ensuring all doors and windows were open, a move designed to increase visibility inside the house while limiting mobility to hidden terrorists.

As the men returned, their relaxed demeanour indicated no immediate threat. Raj decided it was time to go in. “Alright, Sir. We’ll have to go in. Just me and the two scouts. You’re in charge outside. Use the Caspir if you need to retrieve us, including driving it through the wall if necessary.”

Jassi nodded, giving a thumbs up to acknowledge. Raj and his two scouts, Jarnail and Jaggi, entered the house with practiced stealth. They moved room to room, Raj bolting each door behind them silently until they reached the kitchen. He carefully scanned the kitchen, checking for the number of unwashed plates and utensils—any telltale signs of cooking for many people. The distinct odour of fear hit Raj as they descended the wooden staircase leading to the rear exit, a stench he had learned to recognise from interrogation centres when men broke out into cold sweats. Raj realised the terrorists were hidden beneath the wooden steps.

The distinct odour of fear hit Raj as they descended the wooden staircase leading to the rear exit, a stench he had learned to recognise from interrogation centres when men broke out into cold sweats.

Raj silently motioned for his team to continue, exiting the house to regroup with Jassi. “The terrorists are under the staircase,” he muttered, his eyes scanning the surroundings. “We need to be sure before we act.” His body language still did not betray anything untoward.

Showkat fetched the house owner’s nervous teenage son to assist. Raj walked the boy toward the cowshed, explaining that the game was up and asking him to confess. The teenager shrugged and displayed practiced nonchalance, denying any knowledge of hidden terrorists. The boy’s tension was palpable as Raj instructed Jaggi to fetch an axe to break the staircase. Raj noticed the mother and daughter get up to walk away from the corner of his eyes. Before he could react, the boy shouted in Kashmiri to the hidden terrorists, and gunfire erupted from the wooden stairs. Bullets ricocheted in the enclosed concrete space, throwing sparks barely a couple feet from Raj’s face as he instinctively pulled the boy to safety. In the chaos, Raj, Jassi, and Showkat’s gunman found themselves separated from the scouts and Showkat, caught on both sides of the open doorway. It was now twilight, with the light fast fading.

The first terrorist began to exit the house, and Jassi raised his AK-47. Raj stopped him, cautioning that the scouts could get hit. “It’s up to the cordon now,” Raj said to Jassi, who nodded, understanding the gravity of the situation. The sound of a sudden burst of automatic fire from the cordon gave some hope that the cordon had successfully neutralised the terrorist. There were inadequate radio sets to ascertain the details.

The twilight deepened, and the success of their mission now hinged on the cordon’s ability to distinguish between civilians and armed insurgents in the fading light. Raj’s mind raced, calculating their next move, aware that every decision could tip the scales in this delicate dance of life and death. He quickly moved from open window to window, shooting through the latched wooden doors into the passage beyond to constrain their movement to the kitchen. The sound of the movement and gunfire from inside the house added a sense of urgency to the need to exit from the vicinity of the house and take control of the cordon. Both officers, together and highly vulnerable to terrorist action, was not a good situation to be in. The old and antiquated grenades the Army equipped them with had a below 50 percent success rate.

In contrast, the terrorists were armed with better grenades, and it was just a matter of time before they started using them. Showkat’s gunman, a Dogra from Jammu, got his AK-47 jammed in the first burst. Raj quickly used a cigarette lighter he carried in his kit to set the haystack next to the house on fire, knowing the light would constrain the terrorists.

It was time to exit from the compound towards the cordon tactically sighted outside the wall. Raj’s first aim was to regain control of the cordon, and he briefly explained his plan to Jassi. The first terrorist who had come out with a hail of bullets had escaped! The crestfallen JCO explained how they were in position when a man in a pheran and salwar kameez came rushing from the direction of the house. In the twilight, they could not discern if he was armed, and only when he drew parallel did they notice his gun hanging on his shoulder. In the fading light, the burst the cordon could get off in the split second between identification and the running terrorist dodging into the winding village lane missed the target. Giving chase seemed futile as the soldiers were weighed down in bulletproof jackets, and it would mean abandoning the cordon. Raj suppressed his disappointment, patted the JCO on the shoulder, and told him to be alert. He, more than anyone, understood the dilemma of soldiers operating in their own territory under a legal framework and grossly under-equipped for this task. He had repeatedly driven the lesson to his troops about practicing effective fire control, especially at night, as it was very easy to suffer casualties from friendly fire.

the dilemma of soldiers operating in their own territory under a legal framework and grossly under-equipped for this task. He had repeatedly driven the lesson to his troops about practicing effective fire control, especially at night, as it was very easy to suffer casualties from friendly fire.

Raj soon regained control of his QRT and extricated his scouts. On a quick and whispered debrief, Jaggi said that one more terrorist had emerged a couple of minutes after the first one, and both he and the terrorist had fired a burst at each other. He felt he had got him but was unsure in the dark.

The radio operator whispered that the Commanding Officer and one more column would soon arrive. Raj silently cursed about the added distraction and quickly conferred with Jassi, updating each other. It was going to be a long night. Col Ajay Kumar, the CO, had minimal experience in operations and would be under tremendous pressure from the brass on how the operation was progressing.

Showkat, in turn, would have conveyed to the police brass about one terrorist escaping the cordon. Raj, with a resigned grin, now told Jassi, “Sir, keep the old man at least a 100 meters away, because they are not going to understand the artistry of this op, but will keep talking about the terrorist that got away. Just pray Jaggi got his man; otherwise we will never hear the end of this.”

The two officers had met a year ago during the induction training at the Corps Battle School, their paths converging in the volatile landscape of Kashmir. Jassi, the earnest professional soldier, had been diligent in training, while Raj, with the air of the experienced combat soldier, mostly did calisthenics to keep up his fitness and slept. Gradually, mutual respect and affection developed over the months, sharing a tremendous professional and personal rapport. As they faced the unfolding crisis, their bond of trust and mutual respect would be tested in the crucible of combat and the pressure from the operating environment.

Jassi grinned back and said, “I will keep the CO company; you just ensure the operation is concluded properly. Don’t hesitate to call me.”

The night was spent walking around and keeping the cordon party on their toes. They couldn’t allow anyone else to get away. It was chilly, with the air still having the bite of winter. Some of the troops had not slept for more than 30 hours, including Raj and his QRT, who had returned from an ambush in the early hours of the previous night. They had survived on biscuits and water since the start of the operation.

An hour before dawn, Raj asked Jassi to join back the cordon. Grinning at Jassi, he asked him how the night with the CO was. Jassi grimaced and shook his head in reply. Showkat joined them back, and his face was grim. “Sir, the source has given an update that there were only two left in the house as the others had left about 20 minutes before we reached. How could you people allow the one to get away?”

Raj held his irritation in check, “Are you sure Showkat saheb about only two?”

“As per the source, sir,” Showkat hedged. Raj wished this had been known before; the operation could have been conducted differently. There was a significant difference between two and twenty.

It’s coldest before dawn; Raj could feel the change in temperature through his nose. It was time to finish this Op. He re-ascertained the place from Jaggi about the suspected place he felt the terrorist was when they exchanged fire. Experience told him that wounded and even dead terrorists could still inflict casualties if not handled carefully. As the sun’s rays intensified, he waited for the light to improve.

Raj now briefed his QRT, and as they started moving tactically in small teams of five to cover the northeast side of the compound, he noticed the small team led by the QRT NCO freeze and drop to the ground.

“There, sir, we have our man,” he told Jassi. “Ask for the rope,” he told his radio operator. As he now moved at a trot with his scouts and went into a kneeling position about five meters from the body of the terrorist, he gestured to Jaggi, who moved slowly and retrieved the AK-56 from the dead terrorist, taking care to put the safety catch on and only disturb the body minimally.

The rope arrived quickly, and now Jarnail carefully tied the rope on the leg of the body. All three retreated about 15 meters back. The scouts carefully dragged the body back about two to three meters. Many had lost their lives to dying terrorists drawing the pin of the grenades and keeping it under their bodies before passing out. Thankfully, this one had no hidden grenade.

The operation was almost over; now, the final search of the house was left. This task was given to the QRT NCO, who took extra time searching the space under the roof where bundles of hay were stored.

The Op was over. Raj formally saluted Jassi and grinned, “This is over now, Sir. Since you had a bad night yesterday, you should have the privilege of personally giving the report to the CO.”

Jassi gave Raj a big hug. Since yesterday afternoon, he had learned quite a bit about actual small team operations. Jassi quickly passed orders to the Senior JCO for making tea and fetching breakfast, he realised this was one tale that few would believe. Showkat now greeted him with a big smile and congratulated him as he walked with him towards where the CO was located. Showkat shouted orders to the local SHO and his police officers to keep the assembling crowd at a distance.

Raj now felt the tiredness hit him as he unbuckled his bulletproof jacket. He knew the jubilant handshaking that was now to follow could have as quickly turned into heated, on-the-spot verbal inquiries on fixing responsibility for the botched operation. The men all had smiles on their faces. This time, luck favoured them. Hopefully, they will get a 48-hour rest and recoup in the company base.

Raj saw the familiar figure of Echo Coy Commander Major Rao approaching, and he got up to salute the senior regimental officer, who greeted him with a smile and hug. “I have heard of Sherlock Holmes, but now I have met him. How in the hell did you smell them?”

Raj smiled back “This Sir, is real praise. Especially from you.” as he walked Rao through the Op as it unfolded.

The QRT gathered around, sipping the hot tea that had finally arrived. Carefully maintaining tactical posture. The warmth of the beverage was a small comfort after a long and gruelling night. 

Understanding the culture, body language of both individuals and crowds, social norms and building personal relationships were vital in navigating insurgency areas.

The operation had been successful, but it had also been a stark reminder of the fragility of life and the weight of their responsibilities. Raj thought about the teenage girl, her playful demeanour that had alerted him. He wondered whether she was related to the dead terrorist or maybe a lover. 

Unlike in conventional military operations, understanding the culture, body language of both individuals and crowds, social norms and building personal relationships were vital in navigating insurgency areas. The variables in each situation can be so vast that the professional soldier, when tested in combat situations, has to be more of an artist relying on various knowledge and skills to succeed. Cold after-action reports rarely do justice to how operations are actually conducted. 

17 thoughts on “Small Team Art: Counter-Terrorist Operations

  1. Very well written sir , it was as if I was part of this op thinking what and how situation will unfold every minute, great

  2. Wonderfully brought out Pavi….the importance of small team ops, temperament, skill, trg and most importantly patience and a keen eye for spotting details are the attributes one should endeavour to possess to be successful in such scenarios….

    Makes interesting and compulsive reading…god bless

  3. Very well written. Reminds of earlier days. It really brings out the importance of the six senses incl the sixth in such ops. Also the experience required to decipher a situation.
    It will benefit YOs going getting inducted.

  4. Pavi, lucid narration and compulsive reading! Waiting for more such incidents from your rich array of experience. It will serve as a good “lessons learnt” manual.

  5. Well written Pavi. You took me back to the 25-27 years back in valley.
    The days then were real bad with action learning.
    In fact the decentralising command in operation to small teams with free thought and action brought many success.

  6. A beautifully penned experience of real operations. Compliment to the writer for keeping the flow gripping. Most difficult job to reduce the event in a storytelling flow. More power to your pen very difficult for person involved to recollect and write such exhaustive way.
    God bless you.

  7. Lucid,quick paced,tense,& gripping. If writing is an art , Pavi is an artist par excellence !!. Small team operations are a challenge and this is a guide for YOs undertaking these operations to catch the finer nuances of battle of wits. Brought back so many memories of numerous nights spent out in the open under similar circumstances in the valley 30 years back.. Keep at it good fella.. !!

  8. Read the article- memories of similar operation came alive. Kudos for intricately capturing all the moments. Raj’s rare combination of holistic & specific thinking made the operation a success. A lesson for all junior leaders to be observant & hone these skills- which are not taught but do nudge the operation towards successful culmination.
    More power to your pen!
    Keep writing 🖋️….

  9. Hi ! I am Maj Rao ref to in the write-up. I had been monitoring the OP for sometime before the terrorist was killed. I rate this operation as one of the best and worth being taught to young offers is because of the exceptional infantry skill in detecting a hiding terrorist by the body odour (smoker, stressed up, frightened). It is truly an outstanding demonstration. Maj Raj has made it short and much more simple than what he has gone through probably, to stick to brevity. I had seen him in many more situations. He would observe the body language, sweat on the forehead of people, the pattern of opening shops, and predict with accuracy about presence of terrorists in the place. I had read that in Vietnam war, US troops used to employ insects to detect the presence of Vietcong by detecting their body odour – typical of rice eaters. Here we have Maj Raj demonstrating similar skill. Wish we can make our young offers aware of such skills and improve their effectiveness. Long live Infantry.

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