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 is 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.
- Marvel Comics:
- It was 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. 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 Tinkerer, 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 revealed 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; it is still the kind of thing Doom probably does).
- HYDRA began as a Werwolf-esque backup plan for the Nazis in the closing days of World War II, and evolved into a major international terrorist organization who have crossed paths with nearly every hero and villain in the Marvel Universe. They were infrequently allies with Daredevil's evil Ninja enemies The Hand (in some tellings, HYDRA began as an offshoot, a faction subverted by Nazis), 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. AIM both creates the Cosmic Cube and the freakish MODOK. HYDRA is responsible for bringing back the Red Skull (who quickly betrayed them). One of HYDRA's leaders and main assassins is Viper/Madame Hydra, 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. Word of God even modeled them after SPECTRE, the Nebulous Evil Organization that James Bond frequently fights in the books and movies.
- The Hand (or a group of them) are presently run by The Kingpin (who took over from Daredevil himself). They are responsible for training Daredevil's 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 resurrecting them as either undead ninja or, if they are named superheroes/villains, brainwashed killing machines. The Hand started off as politically 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). They are rivals of the Kingpin and other small-time crime lords but have a lot of connections.
- And in DC Comics, Intergang receives weapons from Darkseid himself, seemingly just to annoy Superman. Later, feeling that Intergang was small potatoes, Darkseid brought about the formation of the Secret Society of Super-Villains, which in various incarnations ended up including just about every villain on Earth.
- 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.
- Cobra from G.I. Joe is as much this as a Nebulous Evil Organization. While all of it theoretically answers to Cobra Commander (most of the time), it's made up of various constituent parts who often have their own interests and don't get along, sometimes culminating in Enemy Civil War.
- MARS Industries is an arms manufacturing enterprise, which sometimes supplies Cobra's enemies as well as Cobra itself, as well as a family business controlled by Clan MacCullen's current patriarch, Destro.
- Extensive Enterprises is an international business and organized crime front. It controls Cobra's elite Crimson Guard, usually presented to the world as Private Military Contractors. It's also run by the Paoli twins, who started off as members of the Union Corse.
- The Coil is a snake-themed religious cult, run by the military genius Serpentor who's a frequent rival to Cobra Commander for control of the overall organization.
- The Dreadnoks are an outlaw biker gang and sometime mercenary organization, run by Master of Disguise Zartan.
- The Arashikage Ninja clan, which trained both Storm Shadow and his nemesis Snake Eyes, will at some points and in some continuities be aligned with Cobra, though the alliance usually doesn't last.
- The Baroness is usually portrayed as having begun life as a radical left-wing terrorist, though she usually leaves her associations behind when joining Cobra.
- James Bond:
- The trope was less overt in earlier films, but SPECTRE is involved in drug running, the Great Train Robbery, nuclear terrorism, and has members that include 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. Though they also do mercenary work for an unidentified country in Dr. No and You Only Live Twice, the SPECTRE board meeting in Thunderball shows that both sides of the Cold War are paying them to weaken the other side, such as the French Foreign Ministry paying them to kill a defector to the Soviet Union while smuggling Red Chinese narcotics in the United States. What both sides don't know actually, is that this is what SPECTRE precisely wants to do with both sides of the Cold War, and then strike gold when one side defeats the other.
- The most recent films providing good examples as Le Chiffre from Casino Royale is bankrolling 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, a former KGB agent turned businessman, a Mossad agent and an advisor to the British Prime Minister. They also convince the CIA and, later, MI6 to go along with their schemes under false pretenses. They seem to be motivated by power more than by cash, and probably have some kind of ideology.
- As an underworld banker for not only Quantum but many other clients, Le Chiffre is basically a one-man show, but constitutes the link between a huge and diverse number of illegal organizations such as Al-Qaeda and the Lord's Resistance Army, whose money he secures and launders. This largely explains why MI6 is so interested in capturing him.
- Spectre: It's actually revealed that Quantum and Le Chiffre were fronts for SPECTRE, and that they bankrolled Rogue Agent turned cyber-criminal Raoul Silva in Skyfall. Their Evil Plan in Spectre is to stage several terrorist attacks so that a joint intelligence- and surveillance-sharing network could be established which SPECTRE will have total access to thanks to their moles within the various governments and allow them to stay permanently one step ahead of their enemies. Unlike in the classic continuity, SPECTRE has morphed into a massive, Illuminati-esque cabal working behind the scenes to manipulate events from Black Sites to their side while secretly meeting to discuss their global criminal ops and killing those who get in their way.
- In The Usual Suspects, Keyser Soze is the Diabolical Mastermind who has Turkish drug dealers, professional 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 allow it to fail and that if it did another one would likely take its place.
- Sadly this was based on a real institution, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. When it was taken down in reality, other banks began to become involved in that as well, most notably HSBC which was "Too Big to Prosecute."
- The High Table from the John Wick series.
- 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.
- John Grisham's The Firm has its protagonist uncover that the seemingly amazing law firm he works for is actually a front for the mob, and that they kill anyone who either gets to close to the truth, or who learns it and doesn't want to become a partner, and therefore be in on The Conspiracy. The Firm conducts Sinister Surveillance on its employees, wiring their cars, homes, and telephones and monitoring their lives closely. When they do kill people, they tend to Make It Look Like an Accident.
- Even more than in the movies, SPECTRE in James Bond is this, being made up of alumni from major criminal organizations and secret police forces (the Sicilian Mafia, the Union Corse, the "Highland Turks," the Gestapo, the Yugoslav secret police, and the Soviet black ops organizations SMERSH which had previously been Bond's main enemy). Their leader, meanwhile, is a veteran spy who spent World War Two working first for the Germans and then for the Americans.
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. 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 FlashForward (2009). 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 have 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.
- From the Stargate-verse:
- The Lucian Alliance 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.
- The conspiracy that comes to be known as the Trust is another example. It brings together hard-line nationalists and human supremacists from the American national security establishment (the rogue NID agents), international businessmen who want to profit from patenting and selling alien technology (the Committee), and at least one American politician who enables them in exchange for their supporting his political career (Senator Kinsey). And then the Goa'uld infiltrate and take over the entire organization, using it first to try and destroy the Earth, then to turn it into a refuge for them after the collapse of their interstellar empires.
- In Sons of Anarchy the eponymous biker gang ends up in the center of one of these. They initially bought smuggled guns from a splinter group of the IRA and sold them to black gangs in Los Angeles. Their Equal-Opportunity Evil nature makes them the ideal middleman between criminal organizations who do not trust each other but need what the other group sells. In the course of the series, they make deals with the Russian Mafiya, Latino biker gangs and a Mexican drug cartel. When a Justice Department task force is building a racketeering case against these groups, the Sons are a central element in proving a massive criminal conspiracy. By the end of season 4, things get even more complicated as the Sons are now an unwilling partner in a CIA plan to take control of a Mexican drug cartel which takes the conspiracy to a new level.
- In the NBC series Odyssey, a soldier uncovers that a Military-Industrial Complex Mega-Corp has been funding jihadists and goes on the run from Private Military Contractors across the desert, while back stateside, a corporate lawyer and a political activist stumble upon more threads of The Conspiracy.
- Raymond Reddington runs one of these in The Blacklist, employing counterfeiters, mercenaries, hackers, arms dealers, and other criminal professionals.
- Daredevil (2015): Wilson Fisk's criminal syndicate within season 1 is comprised of Fisk himself and his organization, plus a branch of the Russian mafia run by the Ranskahov brothers, and factions of the triads and yakuza (both fronts for the Hand). When he's rebuilding his criminal empire in season 3 after being locked up, he's making himself a one-stop shop for protection from federal prosecution for other gangs, who are to pay him a 20-25% cut of their profits as tax.
- Top Secret: SI, the 1987 remake of TSR's Top Secret espionage roleplaying game, has the Web, a secretive criminal organization along the lines of SPECTRE that was created in the wake of World War I and has been working to quietly dominate the world ever since. Its principal opponents are the equally secretive Orion Foundation, an agency founded by the survivors of the Web's early plots.
- Grand Theft Auto V Online features The Professionals, an immensely powerful crime network that operates in San Andreas. They are ex-military operatives involved in the drug trade, and they are affiliated with various other gangs such as the Ballas, the Vagos, and The Lost MC. The Professionals seem to be affiliated with the FIB as well.
- Merryweather as well. They are just as corrupt as the Professionals.
- 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's conglomerate to aid in the smuggling, and the Ambassadors of two nations who produced counterfeit bills (using their authority to keep it under wraps besides the heavy security) and destroyed the economy of a foreign nation with them. Each case of this game involves the syndicate, and the head, Quercus Alba, 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. It's also a Government Conspiracy, with all those senators in cahoots with them.
- In Watch_Dogs, the Chicago South Club mob is in league with Blume Corporation to control the city and cover-up their illegal activities, namely the mob's human-trafficking ring. They also have blackmail on the Mayor after using the ctOS to record him killing his mistress, and Blume rigs the election to keep him in office. When the protagonists nearly stumbled on said murder video, the leader of the mob, Lucky Quinn, put hits out on them. They injured Damien Brenks and failed to kill Aiden Pearce, accidentally causing the death of niece in the process, which they then covered up.
- South Park: The Fractured but Whole deals with a drug epidemic that involves multiple criminal groups, including the Mafia, Butters and his minions, Ninja assassins and even the local cops. The one behind it all turns out to be none other than Mitch Conner, AKA Cartman's hand puppet.
- In Terra the Shadow Cabal originally started as a personal army for the Asurian Sovereign Northazul Kalar. It has since expanded into a barely controllable paramilitary group with its hands in everything from slave-raiding to salvage operations.
- The Undersiders from Worm are part of such a conspiracy. Coil's status as their employer is kept secret initially, as is the knowledge that other groups in the city, like the Travelers are also on his payroll. It is later learned that his Nebulous Criminal Conspiracy is actually part of a much greater Nebulous Evil Organisation that he doesn't know about.
- 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 face.
- The Shadow Collective from Star Wars: The Clone Wars is an underworld coalition put together by Darth Maul as a sort of third party in the Clone Wars, opposing both the Jedi and the current Sith order of Palpatine and Dooku. It brings together a dark side Force cult (the Nightbrothers and Nightsisters of Dathomir), a reactionary terrorist group (Mandalore's Death Watch), and three crime syndicates (Black Sun, the Pyke Syndicate, and the Hutt Cartel).