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Qur’an Burning Riots: How Geospatial Tools Helped Calm Waters

May 12, 2012  - By

By Art Kalinski

Few of us fully appreciate the significance of the Qur’an burning in Afghanistan by our troops several months ago. The best analogy I can think of is burning of an American flag. As any Boy Scout can tell you, the proper way to dispose of a worn American flag is to burn it in a dignified manner, however burning that same flag at a protest launches quite a different reaction. The same occurred when our troops burned Qur’ansthat had been desecrated by prisoners. Writing in a Qur’an is considered a desecration and the desecrated Qur’an is supposed to be burned. Our soldiers didn’t understand that there is a ritual associated with the burning, similar to American flag disposal, and thus the uproar heavily fueled by activists throughout the Mideast.

Between emails and phone calls, I personally haven’t had the time northe interest in Tweets, Facebook or texting, so I didn’t appreciate the impact that social media has in many Mideast countries. Most third world countries haven’t gone through the technology progression of newspapers, phone lines, broadcast and cablewe have but instead jumped directly to cell phone and wireless technology. In many countries wireless social media is a dominant method of communication although in many rural areas the high illiteracy rate and limited number of wireless users place those users in strong positions to limit or distort the information they receive.

Soon after the social media fueled Qur’an burning incident, two small US businesses were able to have a surprising impact calming tensions by using human geography and personal action. The effort was possible thanks to the work of retired Air National Guard Brigadier General Edwin (Skip) Vincent. Throughout his military career, including 23 combat missions in F4’s, KC 130’s and 135’s, General Vincent was constantly at the “tip of the spear” involved in combat or support missions. He also built strong personal relationships with military leaders throughout the Pacific Rim including retired Pakistan Army General Azam Effendi.

General Effendi and General Vincent had been working together for a while on economic development and disaster preparedness issues through General Vincent’s business, Soft Power Solutions ( Their efforts included discussions of GIS support for disaster response and recovery efforts along with efforts to stage emergency response supplies and equipment in the event of natural disasters.

Soon after the Qur’an burning incident, General Vincent and General Effendi decided to see what they could do as a grass roots reconciliation effort. They teamed up with Catherine Dunlap, President of a Virginia based firm, Halcyon Group International ( to formulate a simple but effective plan.Halcyon Group International provides expertise in counterinsurgency, stability, and influence operations in regions of conflict or transition for the United States Government and partner nations to achieve strategic, operational, and tactical level objectives. They used their knowledge of cultural geography and local contacts to identify and analyze the situation.

Soft Power Solutions used geospatial tools such as GeoCOP and TACTweet ( to analyze thousands of social media messages. The software scanned public access social media that addressed specific topics and identified the source locations. These tools permitted them to get a clear picture of the spheres of influence and their specific geographic locations. Understanding the “human terrain” they were able to formulate a relatively low key response to the massive protests.


Although the burning occurred in Afghanistan and the protests originated in Bahrain, geospatial analysis determined that northern regions in Pakistan and adjoining Afghan regions were the key areas of influence and starting point to hopefully quell the riots. Together, the Generals formulated a relatively simple reconciliation plan to provide 5,000 Qur’ans with letters of condolence to be delivered to local tribal leaders and clerics. Using the many friends and contacts that they had previously made the effort turned into a public/private partnership that involved over 220 leaders with 22 presentation ceremonies in 16 regions. The regions included four in Pakistan and 12 in Afghanistan. Using her extensive knowledge of Pashtun culture and local customs, Catherine Dunlap helped draft a letter of condolence. Letters, regarding the misunderstanding of the proper way to burn Qur’ans, were worded in a way to open doors and quell resentment.

Shown here are hundreds of the gift Qur’ans. On 29 February visits to distribute the 5,000 Qur’ans and letters of explanations were started. Although this was a non-governmental effort, word of the action spread and the participants received safe passage through the Khyber Pass escorted by both Pakistani and Afghan troops. Despite threats of retaliation from the Taliban, all the meetings were peaceful and warmly received by local leaders.


By March the 2nd there was growing participation of local leaders and clerics including radio and TV coverage. One of the clerics was a very well-known and respected imam who was a direct descendent of Muhammad. He responded enthusiastically to the gesture by issuing a Fatwa calling for peace and forgiveness. This was a significant game changing event since a Fatwa issued by the imam carried significant weight in the world Muslim community.

By March 7, monitoring of social media indicated a positive reaction from local populations and as of the publishing day of this article, no further protests or killings related to the Qur’an burning had been reported.This effort ultimately spawned a massive grand assembly or “Loya Jirga” of tribal leaders. This was the first Loya Jirga in 167 years that originated at the grass roots leveland not government initiated. Discussions ranged from the war, to economic development and even included women in the discussions. One can hope that this leads to bigger and better things.

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As a GISP, I’ve neglected one aspect of my GIS continuing education, human terrain and human geography. I’ve seen increased use of “crowd sourcing” from social media for marketing, disaster response and even politics. Programs such as GeoCOP made the effort by the two Generals possible. The impact of this public private effort with a total cost of only $25,000 has focused my mind sharply and I’m going to work to fill this education gap.

When one considers the size of the vehement protests and deaths of over 23 NATO forces and demonstrators, it’s quite amazing and should be a source of pride that two small companies and two retired Generals could accomplish so much using their knowledge of the culture, geospatial tools, social media analysis and the simple distribution of 5,000 Qur’ans. We’ve all heard the term “asymmetric warfare” but this was a clear example of an “asymmetric peace effort.”We’ll never know for sure, but I can only imagine how many of our soldiers would have come home in flag draped coffins had it not been for this rapid grass roots peace effort.

This is posted in GeoIntelligence Insider, Opinions