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Virtual Martyrs: Jihadists, Oculus Rift, and IED Drones

Virtual Martyrs: Jihadists, Oculus Rift, and IED Drones

December 14, 2014
Robert J. Bunker
Robert J. Bunker Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-Terrorism

© December 2014

For some decades now, jihadists (radical Islamists) have relied upon suicide bombings—primarily via individually carried and vehicular borne (VBIED) explosives—as a distinct form of terrorist attack. Individual martyrdom, as a blood sacrifice to god, is an integral component to many suicide bombings and utilized collectively for terrorist group cohesion and recruitment purposes in line with jihadist narratives and cult rhetoric. Of concern is the intersection of the two trends of virtual (augmented) reality and commercial drones (UAVs; unmanned aerial systems) utilized by terrorists which now offer the potential for a new variant of this form of terrorism to emerge—one based on the concept of the ‘virtual martyr.’ This short essay will express these concerns along with some of the implications of what this new type of ‘bloodless martyrdom’ may mean.

Virtual (Augmented) Reality

In an essay on the deeper implications of virtual reality (VR) on warfare, I recently summarized the emergence of VR as follows:

Concepts of ‘virtual reality,’ an interactive artificial environment experienced by a human through computer generated sensory stimuli, have been around since the late 1950s/early 1960s. Those concepts, along with the technology underlying them, have greatly evolved over the course of decades through flight simulators to various forms of scientific and entertainment visualization to augmented realities. Virtual reality, as an interactive human-computer experience, has utility in business, industry, science, entertainment and many other facets of early 21st century human civilization [1].

This form of technology has recently taken a great strive forward via the Oculus Rift system which offers an unparalleled ‘wide field of view with head-tracking and stereoscopic 3D’ for virtual world interaction and gaming [2]. One of the hurdles of creating this technology has been the ‘motion sickness’ effect of VR, which initially set this system back a number of years and was readily evident in the initial development kit [3].

Oculus Rift advantages include the fact that the headset, which covers the eyes and much of the face, is light weight (~13.4 oz) and comfortable to wear, has universal connectivity regarding cable interfaces and power sources, and even offers multiple eye cups for different vision needs. It is also readily affordable at $350.00 for the development kit 2 (pre-consumer release). With the backing of Facebook, which purchased Oculus Rift for $2 Billion back in July 2014 [4], the Beta market release of this product is currently set for the Summer of 2015 [5].

The military applications of this system are only beginning to be recognized and include Norwegian Army tank driving tests in May of 2014 which allowed the drivers to ‘see through their vehicles’ via 360 degree camera mounts while the external hatches are closed [6]. It was also reported that same month that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) may be creating virtual reality data coding interfaces which allow cyber soldiers to counter hacker intrusions launched against military networks [7].

Commercial Drones (UAVs) and Terrorism

Terrorists and insurgents, specifically radical Islamists but not just limited to such groups, have been considering the merits of taking commercial and gray-area (modified and with military components) drones and placing explosives on them for attack purposes since the early-to-mid 2000s. Other uses, such as for surveillance and as weapons platforms, have also been considered. About twenty terrorist and insurgent drone related incidents—procurement of components, seizure in raids, attempted use, and actual use—have now either taken place or been reported (but not fully confirmed).

Unmanned aerial vehicles in the possession of these groups, which now includes Al Qaeda (and affinity adherents), the Taliban, Islamic State, Hamas, and Hezbollah, have been documented in a growing list of media articles and think tank reports [8]. Al Qaeda affinity linked drone plots in the United States include the April 2007 Christopher Paul (Colombus, Ohio) [9] and September 2011 Rezwan Feradus (Ashland, Massachusetts) incidents [10]. The latter incident is of note because the IED drones to be used—F-86 Sabre and F-4 Phantom scale model jets—also had GPS and high speed (+150 miles per hour) attributes giving them significant precision targeting and kinetic kill capabilities 11].

Such drone incidents have not subsided with three taking place in the last six months. A homemade Hamas drone, armed with what appears to be small rockets, was shot down in Ashdod, Israel in July 2014 [12], an Islamic State drone (a quadcopter) appears to have provided imagery of a Syrian army base prior to a ground assault in August 2014 [13], and Hezbollah released a video of what is said to be a drone attack on al-Nusra Front (Al Qaeda linked) personnel near Arsal, North East Lebanon [14].

Technology Fusion Potentials

It does not require much imagination to merge the trends of terrorist use of IED carrying drones (UAVs) with virtual reality technology such as Oculus Rift. In fact, a conceptual example already exists in the ‘quadrotor racing’ world, as can be viewed in a Youtube video from Argonay, France in September 2014 [15]. This video has already garnered over a million views so this event is now well known in the technorati circles.

In the video, about twenty drones and their operators, with immersion head gear, are involved in a forest race along a short course with drone speeds up to 50 kilometers (30 miles) per hour [16]. The placement of a small IED on these racing quads would be relatively easy for terrorist attack purposes and can be used for detonation against point (individual) and area (group) targets in the open or in confined areas (such as in a room with an open window) in an anti-personnel mode.

Dedicated IED drones can thus be created from the high-hundreds to low-thousands of dollars so that cost will not create a barrier to their use. Upgrades to such devices of course would include the Oculus Rift system, once it sees mass market release [17], and other technology enhancements such as GPS positioning and longer range C2 (command and control) links. Suffice it to say, the terrorist potentials of singular and multiple IED drone use are readily evident. Appropriate countermeasures and response protocols to this emergent threat, along with its being combined with a physical standup assault, now need to be at least considered and likely red teamed.

Virtual Martyr Implications

Beyond the practical terrorism threat, considerations of VR enabled IED drones will likely bring about a new concept—albeit gradually over time—which is that of the ‘virtual martyr’. This form of radical Islamist martyr will differ greatly from that of its predecessor based on suicide bombing. Traditional terrorist martyrdom is derived from one’s great commitment to the cause and the willingness to engage in self-sacrifice combined with relatively low technology applied in an in situ (non-stand off) attack [18].

The virtual martyr, on the other hand, will be characterized as a technology savvy individual— yet one that is less willing to engage in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. The attack itself will be dual-dimensional in nature, with the operator utilizing a virtual reality interface to remain in a stand-off mode while guiding the IED drone to its intended target. Whereas the traditional terrorist martyr has only one life to give in an attack, the virtual martyr—much like in a 3D action game—will have multiple lives to expend as long as additional IED drones exist for him or her to attack with.

Such Oculus Rift (and later generation VR interface) using terrorists will have become the virtual equivalent to the ‘exploding man’ [19] yet may likely be looked down upon by their more traditional brethren—at least at first. Whether the virtual martyr will be susceptible to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is unknown but this is just one of a number of questions this new concept may generate. The potentials of virtual martyrdom, however, do suggest that a second wave of ‘suicide bombers’ may indeed be released upon us sometime in the future—yet these VR based attackers will not die when their bombs explode as in the past. The practical TTP (tactics, techniques and procedures) and even ideological jihadist cohesion and radicalism implications of what this may mean, if it should come to pass, currently are unknown but are important factors to consider.


[1] Robert Bunker, “Is Virtual Reality Changing the Nature of War?” International Relations and Security Network (ISN). ETH Zurich. 20 June 2014,

[2] Oculus VR, LLC., “Oculus Rift: Next-Gen Virtual Reality,”

[3] Kyle Orland, “Developer cites motion sickness in delaying Oculus Rift support.” Ars technica. 21 August 2014,

[4] Stuart Dredge, “Facebook closes its $2bn Oculus Rift acquisition. What next?” The Guardian. 22 July 2014,

[5] Hugh Langley, “The consumer-ready Oculus Rift will launch in public beta by summer 2015.” Techradar. 11 September 2014,

[6] Eirik Helland Urke, “Norwegian army driving armoured vehicle using Oculus Rift.” TU TV. 5 May 2014, and

[7] Joseph Mayton, “DARPA uses Oculus Rift technology to prep military for cyberwarfare.” Tech Times. 27 May 2014,

[8] For an early work, see Eugene Miasnikov, Threat of Terrorism Using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Technical Aspects. Moscow: Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT, June 2004. Translated in English—March 2005,

[9] Bob Driehaus, “U.S. Indicts an Ohio Man in Terror Conspiracy Case.” The New York Times. 13 April 2007,

[10] Peter Finn, “Mass. man accused of plotting to hit Pentagon and Capitol with drone aircraft.” The Washington Post. 28 September 2011,

[11] For the speed and other specifications of the F-86 Sabre model, see

[12] Isabel Kershner and Patrick J. Lyons, “Hamas Publishes Photo of a Drone It Says It Built.” The New York Times. 14 July 2014,

[13] Yasmin Tadjdeh, “Islamic State Militants in Syria Now Have Drone Capabilities.” National Defense Magazine. 28 August 2014,

[14] Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, “Hezbollah armed drone? Militants’ new weapon.” CNN News. 22 September 2014,

[15] Herve Pellarin, “Drone racing star wars style Pod racing are back!” YouTube. 30 September 2014,

[16] Elliot Williams, “Quadrotor Pod Racing.” Hackaday. 6 October 2014,

[17] Oculus Rift has already been interfaced with drone controllers. See, for example, Karissa Bell, “Parrot Introduces Oculus Rift-Enabled Drone.” Mashable. 11 May 2014, and, “Flying Parrot Bebop Drone with Sky Controller & Oculus Rift.” YouTube. 12 May 2014,

[18] This description represents the traditional martyrdom archetype. Numerous examples of coercion, family payment, mental instability, and drugging suicide bombers exist which means this archetype cannot be universally applied.

[19] See Christopher Flaherty, “Chapter 5: Victim, Martyr, or Retaliation, and Becoming the Bomb.” In Robert J. Bunker and Christopher Flaherty, Body Cavity Bombers: The New Martyrs—A Terrorism Research Center Book. Bloomington: iUniverse, 2013: 170-172.

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