There have been many pyramid schemes from commercial scams to chain letters.

A single terrorist wants to take over the world. He has a gun and threatens two people that he will kill their families if they don't threaten two more people each.

If they refuse he kills the person (not necessarily their family) and goes on to threaten another person until he has two terrorised victims willing to carry out his orders.

If they agree to threaten two others he requires hard evidence that they have done so.

He now has evidence that they threatened to kill people and uses this to blackmail them if they refuse to carry out further orders.

This method is passed down the chain which will grow roughly exponentially.

Eventually he is boss of a huge number of people and can pass more and more violent commands down the chain using blackmail and threats to ensure obedience.


What will stop this criminal and his terrorised followers from attaining huge power - eventually enough to destroy government?


As requested in the comments, I will give a more detailed explanation of the structure. Here is a start. I'll refine it later.

  1. Mr Big selects two vulnerable people who are unlikely to contact the police, perhaps petty criminals or drug addicts he finds on the street. He observes them for a while to find out where they live and who they care about - especially children. Wearing a mask he threatens to kill them and/or their family unless they obey him.

  2. If they aren't already addicts, his first orders are to take highly addictive drugs. He oversees this at gunpoint. From then on he supplies them with drugs but allows them to build up debts for this.

  3. To start with the orders aren't too bad - they involve committing minor offences but requiring evidence they have been committed.

  4. When they are addicted and entangled in criminality he orders each of them to threaten two more people in exactly the same way. He gives detailed instructions. Most importantly they have to prove with hard evidence that they have carried out these threats and created new addicts.

  5. Mr Big now has hard evidence that the people immediately below him have threatened death to others. No-one has hard evidence that he did anything.

  6. At this point Mr Big instructs his two subordinates how to be Mr Bigs themselves to people further levels below them.

  7. All evidence of wrong-doing gets retained at each level and copies are passed up the chain to be kept in Mr Big's library.

  8. At every level, people are being (a) threatened (b) made dependent on drugs (c) blackmailed by the person immediately above them. No hard evidence passes down the chain, it only passes up. If anyone gets arrested then the person immediately above sends anonymous evidence to the police of their threatening behaviour to people below them.

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    $\begingroup$ You mean beside any half-way competent police investigator? $\endgroup$ – a CVn Feb 27 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ "Beyond that level no-one will know who the top of the chain is as he has concealed his identity." He's exposing himself because he has to continually make, and possibly act on, death threats. Following that trail wouldn't be too difficult, especially if he is using "vulnerable people" to form the top of his violence pyramid. Vulnerable people tend to not be very good at keeping secrets; for that, you want a completely different type of individual. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Feb 27 at 21:41
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    $\begingroup$ As for "Mr Big is always the hardest to track down in any crime syndicate", the problem typically isn't figuring out who is at the top; it's finding something to nail them for where the prosecutor can make enough of a case for a conviction which won't be just a slap on the wrist. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Feb 27 at 21:54
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    $\begingroup$ This has been tried and is tried repeatedly by criminal gangs and fails. Either your underlings or rivals kill you (or shop you to the police) to save themselves or become top dog, or the cops follow the money and you get nailed. It can't be done. Worst case scenario, the state decides to knock you off on the sly as a threat to state security (possibly with some torture behind the scenes before you shuffle off this mortal coil for info). Conspiracy laws are specifically designed to tackle these situations. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Feb 28 at 4:37
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    $\begingroup$ Worth mentioning the plot of The usual suspects as being related and (not to spoil it) how such an "organization" is not only vulnerable, but can be abused. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Feb 28 at 6:04

Mr. Big's fundamental problem, as pointed out by a CVn in comments, is that he's relying on very unreliable people in this scheme. He's taking people who are vulnerable to manipulation and stacking drug addiction and ever-more-severe blackmail on top of that. Then he needs them to go out and be criminal masterminds to their own cadre of followers. These are not compatible roles. The qualities that make lieutenants effective in their job also make them not susceptible to falling into his trap to begin with.

For instance, what if one of the distant links in the chain screws up and gets caught performing one of their initial "minor" crimes? They're on the hook for a crime against property (vandalism, say) or maybe a simple assault, but the person directly above them threatened their family. What's going to stop them from turning on that person if they conclude the police are able to protect them from someone who is, after all, a lone, desperate junkie? Even if not a single one tries that, the mere fact that these people are acting strangely will begin to form a pattern that will point to a criminal conspiracy. What if one of these vulnerable, desperate people gets caught during a major offense and cracks under interrogation?

(Aside: I'm assuming here that the conspiracy mostly targets people with pretty clean records and without much history with drugs - otherwise drugs and blackmail for minor crimes are hardly going to be effective ways to control their behavior. Unfortunately that means that these people won't be very experienced with crime, and the change to their behavior is a discrepancy that will eventually draw attention.)

Sooner or later, police attention will begin to flow back up the chain. You say that each person conceals their identity from the people below them, but that's hardly a serious handicap. They need to deliver instructions, not to mention more drugs (by the way, where are all these drugs coming from?) to people below them, and take blackmail material from them. That's plenty of opportunities for the authorities to nab the next link in the chain.

And when they find Mr. Big, what do they uncover? A massive stash of blackmail against a huge number of criminals, going back untold months or years (if he's been in business that long), plus whatever drug pipeline is supplying all the other levels of the organization. Even if there's no direct evidence, it's going to be extremely hard for Mr. Big to worm his way out of the mother of all conspiracy-and-racketeering dockets.

P.S. - what happens if someone defies the organization and actually gets their family killed? Perhaps they were reckless, or they don't believe the person threatening them, or that person was just a little erratic and trigger-happy - whatever the case, now there's one or more bodies where nobody expected them to be, and someone who knows the killer's MO and has nothing more to lose by cooperating with the police.


So I see this breaking down into two situations. Either:

  1. Your criminal mastermind is actively holding a gun to the victim's head
  2. Your criminal mastermind basically promises a hit.

For the first situation, most modern legal systems including the US law (link) and English law (link) have defense against being convicted of crimes if done under duress. Most nations that follow this defense are fairly comparable on some level or another. I'll go ahead and quote Wikipedia on their paraphrasing of the US law requirements of the duress defense:

For duress to qualify as a defense, four requirements must be met:[3]

  1. The threat must be of serious bodily harm or death
  2. The threatened harm must be greater than the harm caused by the crime
  3. The threat must be immediate and inescapable
  4. The defendant must have become involved in the situation through no fault of his own

...The defendant would probably get off.

For the second situation--where the victim is allowed to leave, under threat of death--it would be expected that the defendant go to law enforcement about this threat. In this situation one would expect the police to stop the criminal well before he gained real power, if this is really his only ploy.

This being said, threatening another person is stereotypically common tactics for gangs, warlords, and organized crime. Generally this continues until they poke a bear bigger than them (be it the local government, the regional government, the state government, or another country) in which case that power tends to put them in line.

  • $\begingroup$ The point is that Mr Big has hard evidence that the people immediately under him have threatened to kill people two layers below. He can anonymously pass this evidence to the police. Thus level 3 will successfully accuse level 2 but level 2 have no hard evidence that they were threatened, or by whom. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Feb 27 at 22:05

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