Conspiracy theorists love to talk about a group called the Illuminati that pull the strings of world events. While there have been several real (and many more imaginary) Illuminati groups, what would it actually take to have a very powerful group remain hidden for centuries?

  • How would you coordinate your activities?
  • How would you recruit?
  • How would you keep your "victories" sufficiently concealed as to avoid detection?

How do you build an empire of great power that no one knows about?

World Characteristics:

  • Present day to near future
  • Set in the US and Europe
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    $\begingroup$ 1) Money, 2) Power, 3) Influence, 4) Secrecy 5) Common Goals. $\endgroup$ Jul 6, 2015 at 12:40
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    $\begingroup$ Asking for a friend. $\endgroup$
    – JFA
    Jul 7, 2015 at 1:32
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    $\begingroup$ Well I proposed a puzzle on another stackexchange about the illuminati and they posted an email and phone number asking readers to join. Maybe that is how they recruit. $\endgroup$
    – kaine
    Jul 9, 2015 at 22:06

6 Answers 6


In the real world, I would consider it impossible. Over centuries the group would mutate and suffer schisms. Secrecy would be impossible. The question is also pretty close to an open-ended idea generation, but well, I'm answering it right now so it would be silly to vote to close ...

In a fictional setting (what kind of world are you building, anyway?) quite a lot of the traits ascribed to the Illuminati or Freemasons would work.

  • Coordinate through a cell system. The superiors receive reports from the level below them and pass orders down. The pawns have no idea where their reports ultimately end up.
  • Recruit through semi-secret front organisations, and from the children of older conspirators (if suitable). In the front organizations, the recruits get tangible advantages in exchange for loyalty -- a student might get good grades and good jobs, a businessman gets government contracts, and so on.
  • Cloak your victories as the inevitable march of progress. Was it the inherent superiority of the capitalist system which killed the Soviet Union, or something else?

Play the game Illuminati with a few friends, take a picture of the winning structure, and replace all names with your own ideas to avoid copyright infringements (e.g. Offshore Banks becomes Luxembourg Banks, or Bahamas Banks). That's your conspiracy.

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    $\begingroup$ Ad Was it the inherent superiority of the capitalist system which killed the Soviet Union, or something else?: Do you know any non-Russian sources in support for the something else hypothesis? $\endgroup$ Jul 6, 2015 at 9:00
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    $\begingroup$ If secrecy is impossible, go the other route. If I were running a vast conspiracy of this style, one of my highest priorities would be to ensure that all sorts of wild rumors get spread around about my group, the crazier the better. Easily-debunked conspiracy-nuttery would be my best friend, especially if the wilder rumors had things our group had really done mixed in. That way, if someone ever did actually catch us doing something... who would believe them? $\endgroup$ Jul 6, 2015 at 10:24
  • $\begingroup$ @DmitriPisarenko, I'm answering in the context of the worldbuilding site, not history or sceptics. The comment refers to a fictional setting. That being said, both sides tried to destabilize each other by overt and covert means. Take the private-government partnership of Project Azorian -- you could call that a pro-capitalist conspiracy. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Jul 6, 2015 at 16:32

Not naming it would help. Power structures that are formalized are easier to control and dismantle. (See The Tyranny of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman.) Making power structures explicit also takes a degree of time and energy, as well as sacrifice on the part of those who already hold de facto power, while also making your group more comprehensible by outsiders.

If your organization has true power, it doesn't need to be particularly secret. It just needs to be copacetic/ridiculous enough to outsiders to keep any meaningful mass of them from uniting to dismantle it. Mormons, for example, hold a large degree of power, as do members of fraternities like the Skull and Bones.The Church of Scientology also has a degree of power. All of these organizations, though, aren't really taken seriously. They see some resistance, but real power doesn't need to be underground in the way that an underdog organization would. Real power of the sort you have in mind would likely just change the culture it inhabits to makes its way of doing things the natural way of doing things. (Not saying these organizations have that kind of power, of course. They almost certainly don't. I would be skeptical of any formal organization claiming to have that kind of power, to be honest.) Since power centers are really just social groups of the kind that form naturally among people of like interests, they're pretty readily tolerated. Freedom to associate is a pretty fundamental freedom, and it's basically the foundation of these power centers.

If you're set on making something with some Hollywood ritual to it, though, looking at the secret societies of China might be instructive. They openly and directly affected political developments in China and would make much easier targets of study than anything else. And if you want to put a Western tint on it, look up Thelema. A lot of the occult symbolism in popular culture derives from Thelema, and a lot of powerful people are supposedly members.

As for recruitment, it would be mostly self-determined. Just keep an eye out for promising recruits who have shown a strong degree of self-determination. People who have already begun to walk your organization's path, as it were, of their own accord, and who demonstrate a high degree of acumen for it. People who have a high degree of internal/personal power and whose power would only be augmented by having access to your organization's network effects. People who basically plug themselves into your organization's activities and find a place for themselves. Think of it almost as an emergent phenomenon.

  • $\begingroup$ "Real power of the sort you have in mind would likely just change the culture it inhabits to makes itsway of doing things the natural way of doing things" this is the way to exert real power in the "power behind the power" kind of way. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Jul 6, 2015 at 12:02
  • $\begingroup$ What secret powers does the Skull and Bones have? $\endgroup$
    – PyRulez
    Jul 7, 2015 at 3:45
  • $\begingroup$ I don't know that they have secret powers. But a lot of very rich and powerful people are Bonesmen, and having having those kinds of connections is itself a form of power. Kinda played into my point about real power not needing to be secret. $\endgroup$
    – ryepdx
    Jul 7, 2015 at 18:23
  • $\begingroup$ TIL Mormons weren't taken seriously.... $\endgroup$
    – Anoplexian
    Apr 26, 2016 at 15:03

To really function as a "secret society", you would have to have layers like an onion. As mentioned in another answer, there would be "open" groups like the Freemasons, which to all intents and purposes is a gentleman's dining club. Most members would never get much farther than that level (perhaps partaking in the various rituals of Freemasonry as a fun diversion).

The "inner circle" uses the group(s) as fronts, a first level screening test for recruits and (since we already have them on hand) as the various foot soldiers for the organization. Not foot solders as infantrymen, but rather (since these are already prominent people in the community) as conduits of information (Tell me, Simon, what exactly is going on with that new city councillor?) and means of passing "suggestions" ("Well, that seems like a load of rubbish to me. Simon, next time you speak to that councillor, I suggest you let him know...)

The group gets high quality information and plants suggestions, ideas and even incentives through the unknowing efforts of the club membership, who, as respectable citizens, could expect that they would have some clout in the community, and their words will be taken seriously.

In the background, the inner circle would continue to ensure (as much as possible) that their circle continues to be "charmed", steering contracts to the "right" people and making sure they get a cut opt things to keep the organization running.

Each "club" or organization would operate as a cell within the larger structure, so the club leadership would send reports "up" through cutouts and dead drops, and receive orders in return from "higher" cells, then adapt them to the local situation via the "regular" membership.

As you might expect, this is a very slow moving organization, but it has multiple advantages. Groups which decide to move quickly (think of SPECTRE, or real world groups like the Red Army Faction) attract attention quickly, and countermeasures like James Bond or the German GSG-9 are deployed to deal with the issue right away. On the other hand, a slow infiltration of the upper echelons of society might allow the Illuminati to actually have the ear of James Bond, or better yet, the various planning and operational members of the Secret Service who decide what missions to go on. The Illuminati don't have to build their own action arm if MI-6, the CIA and the KGB can be convinced to do what the group wants done. Continue to do this with finance, captains of industry and so on, and you really can rule the world.

Of course the two big questions are:

What is the end goal?, and;

Who else is doing this?

  • $\begingroup$ I think that is the best answer: you take a group of (not much more than) 10 persons, and each of them suppervise a larger 'secret society'. You might want to add a few more layers. The more layers, the harder it is to get to the centre, the more diffuse would the goals be, and the less exposed would the core people be. It's as if a core group were controlling the mormons, scientology church, etc. as per @ ryepdx, together with free-masons or high-IQ societies. $\endgroup$ Jul 6, 2015 at 6:43
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    $\begingroup$ @bilbo_pingouin xkcd.com/1274 for a few more. $\endgroup$
    – PyRulez
    Jul 7, 2015 at 3:47

Expanding on my first answer, with some responses to @ryepdx and @AndyD273.

An Ideology or Cause

Simple greed motivates some pawns some of the time, but to last over centuries and to remain true to their goals, the conspiracy needs a goal beyond making money.

  • Greedy people might be willing to kill for more money, but are they willing to die for it? Even if they face only a painful death and a shallow unmarked grave? What motivates the conspirators to keep the secret at all costs?
  • A coherent goal could help conspirators over a crisis of conscience or thoughts of impending mortality.
  • If the goal is to make money, individual conspirators might be tempted to make their own side deals to make even more money. That increases the risk of disclosure for the conspiracy. Controlling greed requires more than just fear of the wrath of the superiors.
  • As recruits are promoted from their initial positions to ever more responsibility, they must be told a consistent story where each new layer of "truth" refines and reaffirms the previous layers.

There could be gradual revelations from "we're manipulating city hall for profit, here are your tasks" over "we're manipulating the state legislature for profit, here are your tasks" to "we're manipulating global markets for profit, here are your tasks", but that rings hollow.

An Endgame

Is there a plan to go overt when a goal is reached, so that conspirators can bask in the glory of having been on the right side all along, and reap their due rewards?

  • I wrote above that an ideology can motivate conspirators to fight in darkness, but do they have hope for a better future? Without such hope, they could just as well admit that they're going to fail, and cut a deal with the opposition.
  • How do you prevent different branches of the conspiracy (from different cells) from working at cross purposes? By working from a common plan.

Reasons to stay Covert

The conspiracy needs a good reason why it can't go overt yet, or we're talking about a different kind of story.

  • Are the conspirators hiding from the general public or from other conspiracies? Those other conspiracies might know about the first conspiracy, but keep silent by mutual consent. Involving muggles would be the nuclear option.
  • The goals might be impossible to reach if everybody knew. Perhaps because everybody would rise up and fight, or because the means of the conspiracy require an ignorant public even if people would agree.

It would take a lot of ruthlessness, and even then rumors would get out.
Any members that get out of line are eliminated, anyone that asks the wrong questions has an accident.

First, being a sociopath would be an advantage to people in this line of work. As others with the right traits came to light (sociopathic, limited conscience, focus on an ideal or goal at the expense of other people) then they would be singled out and groomed. Put in situations where their resolve is tested one step at a time, drawing them deeper and deeper, and collecting evidence and blackmail martial at the same time (though for the right candidate it won't be needed).
Once they prove they have the right stuff, then they would be approached for final recruitment.
If they flunk out then the blackmail martial would be held in case some day they get a position of power.

Coordinating activities would work the usual ways: messages, codes, rituals, business meetings, etc.
A lot if it could work through cells, where a person knows the ones they recruit, and the single person that recruited them. Then if someone gets caught doing something naughty, then you only need to take out them and the person above them to protect the organization. There would probably be a secret way to allow orphaned cells to reconnect once they have been checked to make sure they aren't compromised.

And lastly, they wouldn't need to hide their victories, just give the credit, good and bad, to others.
Take out a dangerous rival? Let a friendly police officer have the credit. Bomb an orphanage to allow for land development? Pin it on your enemies.

The biggest shield would be to take the money and power to make sure members make it into high positions, and any non members can be neutralized with blackmail or killed.


These are my tips to create a shadow government, (Any resemblance to reality is pure coincidence)

The Old Venetian Mask Tradition. Hide your true identity for your illegal activities. Use Tax heavens for your income. Create a fake person identity or use other people who cannot be linked to you to carry out your questionable activities.

You Cover my Back and I’ll cover Yours. Don’t be greedy, know the people you can trust and help them if they are trustworthy. Create a generational “fraternity” e.g. “Skull & Bones (George Bush, John Kerry, etc). Encourage marriages between members because family bonds are very useful to maintain loyalty.

Information is Power. Get compromising information abut the people who could potentially betray you, if they fall you fall and the other way around.

Keep a Low profile. The less famous your are the better. Let other people take the glory for you. Be a silent warrior, a dark knight. Stay away from the limelight!

Revolving Doors. Reward those people who had help you in an “indirect” subtle way. Donations, lobbies, overpay them for absurd conferences or positions in your companies, etc.

Keep your Friends Close but your Enemies Closer. You may have rivals creating your shadow empire. It’s better not to be a threat to those who are bigger than you. You should know what your position is on the chessboard.

The World Belongs to the Wolves. If you are going to create a secret society you must know that to most people ethics are morality are a problem therefore the best strategy is to become a sociopath. A person with no scruples and no soul who is good at pretending to have them. Identify other wolves and ally with them to take advantage of the sheep.

Too Horrible to be Truth. Use the Demosthenes quote “A man is his own easiest dupe, for what he wishes to be true he generally believes to be true.” If your secret society has grown too big and your activities are too suspicious, sacrifice a few patsies. As it is known from the ancient Greeks, people tend to BS themselves and would settle for that.

Information vs Disinformation. When presented with this most people believe whatever they want to believe not necessarily the truth. Very few people want to dig deeper. Using your critical thinking skills takes effort therefore few people would actually do it. The truth is not for everybody but for those who seek it. So for your organization use a name like “Friends of the Stars” or “UFO freaks”. The easier to ridicule the better so no “reliable media” would take it seriously.


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