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The Illusive Man was a normal civilian with a job and a family until the discovery of alien life. Not long after the Battle of Shanxi, an e-mail circulated throughout the extranet calling for humanity to take its rightful place and assert its power to its new alien contacts. Alliance intelligence could not locate the originator of the e-mail, but referred to him as an "illusive man" in press releases to try and dismiss the human-centric diatribe. The name stuck, and the Illusive Man founded Cerberus, a human-centric splinter group. He was responsible for breaking Cerberus away from the Alliance military, and building up Cord-Hislop Aerospace as a cover for the organization's shadow operations. His justification is that, "If humanity is to survive, sacrifices must be made for the greater good. The Alliance doesn't understand this, Cerberus does." In terms of appearance, the Illusive Man is dressed in an impeccable futuristic-style suit, combined with the casual swagger of a charming billionaire; he also seems to possess unique patterns on his irises. It is currently unknown whether these grant him any additional abilities or are simply aesthetic.
The Illusive Man believes that the political party Terra Firma has a part to play in humanity's ascension and even used an assassination in order to put the right man — Charles Saracino — in power. The Illusive Man's belief thatbiotics are the future of humanity led him to order the sabotage and detonation of Eldfell-Ashland Energy starshipsover human colonies, to ensure biotic children would be born. Somehow — likely through unsavory means — the Illusive Man claimed one of these biotic children as a baby and gave her to Paul Grayson to raise as his own daughter. A decade later he planted Cerberus operatives into the Ascension Project to take advantage of the Alliance's more sophisticated biotic research.
He also has an interest in the quarians and their Migrant Fleet. The Illusive Man does not trust an alien species that effectively has the largest armada of ships in the galaxy. However, he is also greatly impressed by the quarians' technological expertise, namely their creation of the geth and their continued survival despite the odds stacked against them. This curiosity has led him to seek the transmission codes for the Migrant Fleet in order to spy on them.
His long-term plans are ultimately unknown, but it is known that he has many different projects in motion at a time, all factoring into helping humanity achieve its "rightful place" in the galaxy. Currently, it seems that his main focus is on the Reapers: realizing the vast threat they pose to humanity's survival, he dedicates his vast resources to an effort to control their power by any means necessary.