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The criminal underworld is a big, big place. It is shadowy, omnipresent and indiscriminate -- if you are out to break the law, you're in, whether you like it or not.

An Ancient Conspiracy only in that crime is as old as sin, this trope brings together The Syndicate, the Corrupt Corporate Executive, Corrupt Bureaucrat, The Chessmaster, Magnificent Bastard, Arms Dealer, terrorists, rogue states and potentially anybody involved in organized crime of one kind or another. It won't likely be a full-fledged Government Conspiracy, but it will have a few politicians in its pocket. A portion of the loot for that bank job goes to the local Syndicate who are dealing arms to African revolutionaries with links to Islamic terrorists, who blow up a plane with a mafia snitch on board and run by an airline that was getting in the way of a Corrupt Corporate Executive. All this was monitored and assisted by the Nebulous Evil Organization who knew all the necessary information from their mole in the FBI.

The Nebulous Criminal Conspiracy is when a number of criminals and criminal organizations -- which when properly defined includes terrorists, illegal militias, revolutionaries and other politically-minded groups as well as your mafias and drug cartels -- make common cause with each other despite rival or even diametrically opposed goals. It may or may not include, or be headed by, at least one Nebulous Evil Organization that feels the need to hire out from time to time. It is often run behind the scenes by a group of Manipulative Bastards and Chessmasters who are trying to achieve a single grand objective, but want or need to use other criminals to achieve these ends. As the underworld is a community, expect them to know who all the hitmen are and to use many frequently.

A subtrope of The Conspiracy.

Examples of Nebulous Criminal Conspiracy include:

Comic Books

  • In Marvel Comics, it was recently established that Norman Osborn used to work for various shady industrialists, who used him and others to fund and create low and mid-level supervillains for the heroes to fight so that they won't have time to turn on them for all their misdeeds. They seemingly did not plan for Osborn to become an insane superpowered supervillain in his own right, of course. It is strongly implied that he was not the only such businessman they hired and they have apparently been up to this since at least the days of Captain America.
  • Another Spider-Man villain, The Tinker, operates on a much smaller scale. Amongst other things, he is responsible for helping deck out Mysterio with his toys, and in the Secret War storyline it was revelaed he is one of a number of arms dealers and rogues who are supplied by Latveria (though Doom wasn't actually in charge of the country during that particular story; of course, it is still the kind of thing Doom probably does).
  • HYDRA infrequently allies with Daredevils' evil Ninja enemies The Hand (in some tellings, HYDRA began as an offshoot, a faction subverted by Nazi's), and used to team up with the Maggia, who were Marvel's politically correct expies of The Mafia (though The Mafia have also started popping up in stories as well). Their science division AIM also went their own way, but they still team up from time to time.
    • HYDRA are reponsible for bringing back the Red Skull (who quickly betrayed them). They began as a Werewolf-esque backup plan for the Nazi's in the closing days of World War Two, and evolved into a major international terrorist organization who have crossed paths with nearly every hero and villain in the Marvel Universe. AIM is notable both for creating the Cosmic Cube and the freakish MODOK.
      • One of HYDRA's leaders and main assassins is Viper/ Madame Hydra, a Complete Monster who once dated the Red Skull (he left her- she was too evil) as well as The Silver Samurai, and usually leads the snake-themed mercenaries the Serpent Squad, who consequently are often in HYDRA's employ. The Squad's current leader is Sin, the Red Skull's daughter.
    • The Hand (or a group of them) are presently run by the Kingpin (who took over from Daredevil himself). They are responsible for training Daredevils girlfriend Elektra and his newer enemy Lady Bullseye up as assassins, and are a magical cult led by demons who worship another demonic creature called The Beast, who recruit members by killing them and ressurrecting them as either undead ninja or, if they are named superheroes/ villains, brainwashed killing machines. The Hand started off as poltically motivated rebels before being taken over by a more even cult called the Snakeroot, who generally form the Hand's elite.
      • In the one-shot Wolverine: Enemy of the State they allied with HYDRA and also took over a mutant terrorist group Dawn of the White Light, and "recruited" dozens of lesser D-list characters into their ranks (and Wolverine. That same story introduced an old hag called Elsbeth, a psycho devil worshipper and one of the richest people on the planet who spent her fortune on funding HYDRA and other evil conspiracies.
    • Maggia bosses include minor Spider-Man foes Silvermane and Hamerhead and old Avengers baddie Count Nefaria (who is the dad of Iron Man baddie Madame Masque, another Maggia member). The are rivals of the Kingpin and other smallet-time crime lords, but have a lot of connections.
  • And in DC Comics, Intergang receives weapons from Darkseid himself, seemingly just to annoy Superman.
  • Sin City has shown that the cops and the mob are both pretty evil and at each others' throats but they do business with each other in Hell And Back.


  • James Bond, the most recent films providing good examples as Le Chiffre from Casino Royale is bank rolling African Terrorists as an employee of Nebulous Evil Organization Quantum, who in Quantum of Solace are trying to set up a Bolivian general as a dictator to seize control of Bolivia's water, and whose members include evil phony philanthropist Dominic Greene and an advisor to the British Prime Minister. They also convince the CIA and, later, MI 6 to go along with their schemes under false pretences. They seem to be motivated by power more than by cash, and probably have some kind of ideology.
    • The trope was less overt in earlier films, but SPECTRE is involved in drug running, The Great Train Robbery, nuclear terrorism, and has as members a world Chess champion, the former head of SMERSH, a mad scientist, a playboy, a Japanese chemical company, and is recognisable to the public as the International Brotherhood for the Assistance of Stateless Persons. They also do mercenary work for an unidentified country, probably Red China.
  • In The Usual Suspects, Keyser Soze is the Diabolical Mastermind who has Turkish drug dealers, third rate American crooks, and apparently every criminal everywhere dancing to his tune. Or so he claims.
  • Taken. A tour of the Parisian underground, from lowly Albanian thugs to crooked intelligence officers, to the wealthy Saudi Sheikh who is the client for all those pretty sex slaves.
  • Layer Cake, the title being a reference to the various "layers" of the London criminal underworld, encompassing petty drug dealers, to thieves, up to Serbian War Criminals turned drug barons and powerful British crime lords. Reference is made to an attempt to "buy a country" via two of the bigger fish bankrolling an (ultimately botched) coup d'etat in an African nation, a detail that drives the story.
  • The International is about a crooked bank that sits at the centre of one of these. The protagonists are informed that too many powerful people find it useful to alow it to fail, and that if it did another one would likely take its place.


  • In Alex Rider, international assassins The Gentleman and Yassen Gregorovitch are each hired quite separately by two villains (for a total of four); the latter was trained by Nebulous Evil Organization SCORPIA who, in addition to their own evil schemes, offered support to most of the other Big Bads of the series. SCORPIA themselves are led by former assassins, spies, an infamous torturer, and the Big Bad of the 7th book who was the head of a Triad human trafficking ring, from all around the world, united by greed. They had at least one mole in the Australian Secret Service, and do work for unidentified rogue states.
  • In Otherland, the Grail Brotherhood is an international conspiracy of Corrupt Corporate Executives, financiers, drug lords, military leaders, and heads of state that collectively control a massive amount of money and power. They have discovered, however, that the one thing they can't buy is what no human can -- freedom from death. Thus, all their energy becomes devoted to finding a solution to this problem, at any cost.

Live Action Television

  • In ~24~, not every Big Bad is part of it, but it has been hinted from Day 1 that there is a bigger and more complex conspiracy running the show. This is confirmed in later seasons when Jack's brother -- who we had previously seen bossing around the President -- confesses to being behind the hits on David Palmer and Jack's friends, plus several attempts on Jack's own life. Day 7 reveals the apparent mastermind of this conspiracy but others are still out there. Pretty much every femme fatale, crooked politician and Corrupt Corporate Executive seems to be involved in one way or another, with terrorists and dictators used as pawns in their unidentified scheme (it seems to be about setting up some kind of hardline government to deal harshly with threats to the US, albeit by plotting most of the attacks on said US to create the environment such a government would need to operate in).
  • Something like this seems to be going on in Flash Forward. The Blackout was orchestrated by a conspiracy which includes various scientist pawns, a crooked mercenary company, a trade company in Hong Kong, a nuclear terrorist/ assassin, and possibly elements of the US government. They have at least two moles in the FBI, though one of them is actually a double agent, but even she may be being duped as her handler might also be a spy. The conspirators has the power to make people see the future, which means they can pre-empt almost every move that will be made against them before it is even thought of. The full extent of the conspiracy will remain unknown sadly, as the series has been cancelled.
  • The Lucian Alliance from the Stargate Verse are an example of sorts- a collection of criminals and criminal organizations who existed (presumably) prior to the dissolution of the Goa'uld Empire's hold on the galaxy who banded together to take advantage of the power vacuum left behind. Initially they seemed content to deal in addictive space corn and just do regular criminal stuff, but by the time of SGU they clearly had some sort of plan to take over the Destiny. Since the series was canceled, we'll never know what they wanted it for.

Video Games

  • The smuggling ring in Ace Attorney Investigations features corrupt prosecutors to manipulate trials in their favour, detectives in Interpol to hinder and keep tabs on the investigation, Amano/Amanogawa's conglomerate to aid in the smuggling, the Ambassadors of two nations who produced counterfeit bills (using their authority to keep it under wraps besides the heavy security), and pretty much destroys the economy of a foreign nation by means of counterfeit bills. Each case of this game involves the syndacate, and the head, Quercus Alba/Canage Onred is considered to be by many the most frustrating Ace Attorney villain yet.
  • The Inner Circle from the Max Payne series, while seeming to be an Ancient Conspiracy in the first game, is revealed (or Retconned, if you're feeling less charitable) to be one of these in the second game.

Western Animation

  • In Young Justice, a secret society known as The Light seems to have connections or acts as the mastermind with nearly every villain that the heroes have faced so far.

Real Life

  • In Real Life, most well-known cartels, terrorist groups and crime syndicates really are inter-linked and will frequently do business with each other, pretty much because they don't have much choice, what with being illegal and all. Intelligence organizations usually monitor such relationships and may get involved in them in pursuit of their own goals.