A number of important leadership figures are taken out in one fell swoop.
It's no secret that often, all that's needed to end a struggle is to decapitate the enemy's leadership. Military stragegists, royal heirs, mafiosi and putschists all can agree on that. While, in some of the less realistic stories, cornering and killing the Big Bad or his Dragon can already have a devastating effect on the entire Empire, there is a certain charm and effectiveness to ensuring that many - if not all - leaders of any importance are assembled in one place, so they can all be taken out of commission in one fell swoop. Whereas killing one character might put the enemy operation at great risk, a Decapitation Strike renders the very idea of its continuation all but impossible. Will occasionally, but not always, result in a surprise successor ascending the helm. It's also a very popular device during The Coup. Compare to its Supertrope Decapitated Army, The Purge, Straight for the Commander and Ruling Family Massacre, which restricts itself to actual royal families. Literal decapitating attacks would fall under Off with His Head!, a related but different trope. Since this is very much a Death Trope, there will be unmarked spoilers ahead!
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- The Punisher often pulls these off, as disorganized crime is easier to deal with.
- The Punisher Max begins with Frank sneaking up on the birthday party of the centenarian Don Cesare, shooting him and as many of the invited high-rankers as he can. The resulting power vacuum fuels much of the series.
- In Welcome Back, Frank, Frank goes to a lot of trouble to rescue a Don being held hostage from a South American rebel camp. The Ungrateful Bastard betrays Frank and returns to New York, where he calls a meeting of the Mafia to deal with the Punisher once and for all. Frank calls him at that moment to ask him why he'd been rescued, if not as the best way to put a lot of high-ranking Mafia goons in the same room. Then shows up with an M-60.
- Yet another has Frank booby-trap a building where various organized crime members are having a meeting. He pushes down the detonator, making it clear that if he dies, everyone dies, and promptly starts shooting the helpless criminals.
- Barracuda once sent out invitations to multiple mob bosses in a single location in order to mow them down... and as bait for Frank.
- Dungeon Keeper Ami: The entirety of Crowned Death's intelligent troops has been taken out by Mukrezar with a collapsible ceiling.
- A Scotsman in Egypt; the Timurid invasion is thwarted first by infiltrating their army years earlier with a Fake Defector who arranges for their army to head west while sending information back, then by a single assassin killing their top generals as they're looking over the planned battlefield. Despite the loss of their (competent) leaders and the fact that they're outnumbered by the Scots, the Timurids still fight and are defeated.
- Inglourious Basterds has "Operation Kino", a joint SOE/OSS plan where almost the entire Nazi high command - including Goebbels, Goering, Bormann, and even Adolf Hitler himself - is to be blown up while attending the premiere of a major propaganda movie in Paris. Surprisingly, it goes off almost without a hitch.
- In Der Wixxer, it turns out it was Victoria Dickham's plan all along to blow up the entire British royal family during a wedding to catapult herself onto the throne. It is foiled by the protagonists via Wire Dilemma.
- In London Has Fallen, Islamists try to simultaneously assassinate all the leaders of the G7 as they attend the funeral of the British prime minister. Of course, the American president is the only one to survive.
- Tried unsuccessfully in Valkyrie, as detailed in the Real Life section. Colonel von Stauffenberg, in collusion with several other German officers and politicians, stashes a bomb in the Wolfsschanze, the Nazi German military headquarters, during a 1944 meeting headed by Hitler. Though some generals and officers are killed, Hitler himself survives, and promptly orders his Schutzstaffel to arrest and execute the conspirators.
- In The Godfather, Michael has the heads of all of the other New York crime families assassinated on the same day. This ends the Mob War and makes Michael one of the most powerful mob bosses in America.
- Discussed in WarGames. This is the reason why WOPR cannot be "unplugged" to resolve the problem. A power loss would be interpreted as a decapitation strike and would launch immediately. Many real world nuclear powers do have safety measures in place that will launch if there is no positive signal from Command.
- The 1998 Austrian thriller Opernball is about a right-wing terrorist cell venting cyanide into the Viennese Opernball (an annual high-society event typically attended not only by most of the Austrian government, but by all of the social and economical elite), gassing thousands of people to death in an apparent suicide mission, including the chancellor and the president.
- This is the plan of HYDRA in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as they plan to assume control of SHIELD's newest weaponry and aim them simultaneously at thousands of high-ranking targets (including several in the White House and the Pentagon) to take over the world in an enormous coup d'etat(s). Thanks to the Avengers' intervention, they end up blowing each other up. And that's only after they entrap and kill most of SHIELD's own (uninvolved) leading figures.
- Played literally in Kingsman: The Secret Service, where much of the world's leaders (including the entire White House and the Swedish prime minister) have conspired with the Big Bad to let a Hate Plague decimate the world's population. Eggsy and Merlin manage to reverse-engineer the cranial chips that are supposed to protect them from the plague's effects, causing every involved world leader's head to overheat and explode simultaneously in one glorious montage.
- Independence Day: Resurgence: While the president is at NORAD, the aliens invade and kill everyone. With the line of succession all but destroyed, General Adams is sworn in as the new president.
- Emperor Palpatine of the Star Wars Revenge Of The Sith loves this trope:
- The Jedi Order are the only serious threat to a Sith regime. General Order 66 decimated the Jedi Knights, leaving a spotty few to counter TheEmpire's multi-million marching army.
- The Separatist council get a visit from the Emperor's right-hand man, who wordlessly locks them in the war room, then massacres them. Knute Gunray's "... but we have been loyal!" reveal that to The Chessmaster, pawns are expendable.
- Further, according to Star Wars: A New Hope, the last bastion of power in the old Republic was the Galactic Senate. Quoting Grand Moff Tarkin: "The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I have just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently." Pink slips or bloodbath?
- In The Wheel of Time, Lanfear near-fatally sabotages the armies of the Light in the Final Battle by infiltrating the generals' dreams and turning them into Manchurian Agents who misuse their troops in subtle but debilitating ways. Were it not for Mat Cauthon taking command, the ploy likely would have won the war for the Dark One.
- In the Hercule Poirot novel The Big Four, Hercule disguises himself as his non-existent brother Achille, in order to trick the titular group into thinking that Hercule is still at large, so that they can be taken out all at once in the planned operation.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire, the Freys killed the vast majority of the northern lords during lord Edmure Tullys wedding, thus ending the war of the five kings in a single night.
- In A Short Victorious War Rob S. Pierre's conspiracy hijacks a naval shuttle and carpet-bombs the Haven presidential palace while his entire family and the heads of all the major Legislaturist houses are there. Framing "rogue element of the People's Navy" for it and giving him an excuse to Purge the Navy of old regime loyalists.
- A somewhat more small-scale (and thus realistic) example popped up in Cursor's Fury, book three of Codex Alera. The First Aleran Legion is struck by a powerful, magical attack, targeted at the Commander's Tent, just when every officer in the camp has been summoned there to discuss a recent development. If it had worked as designed, it would've wiped out everyone who could've taken command of the Legion, except for a strategically-placed traitor... but instead, command of the Legion winds up falling to the Third Subtribune Logistica (which basically means undersecretary to the undersecretary of logistics) who had been delayed. Fortunately, said Subtribune happens to be a Cursor - a secret agent of the First Lord, sent to infiltrate the legion to search for signs of treason and general espionage, and given a lowly officer's billet specifically to keep him flexible and out of the spotlight. Later, several characters state that the ORIGINAL leadership of the Legion, however competent they might have been, could not have accomplished even half of what he then proceeded to do with the 'decapitated' Legion...
- In Malazan Book of the Fallen this was a favorite tactic of the Malazan Emperor. When conquering small kingdoms he would send in his Talons, a cadre of magic wielding assassins into the enemy capital. In a single night they would kill the ruling family, any prominent generals and any magic users who could be a threat to the Malazan army. The Malazans would then use the ensuing chaos to quickly take the city without a major battle or lengthy siege.
Live Action Television
- In Game of Thrones, this happens multiple times.
- The most (in)famous instance would be the Red Wedding, where the minor House Frey butchers the entire leadership of the Northern Rebellion, including the freshly anointed King In The North, Robb Stark, during a wedding feast.
- Khaleesi Daenerys does the same thing after being taken prisoner by a rival Dothraki horde; she arranges for all the Khals to meet her in the temple of the sacred city to hear her out, then has the temple set ablaze, killing everyone inside but her own (fire-proof) self.
- Cersei Lannister pulls one off on the entire Sparrow leadership, most of the Tyrell family, and much of her son's royal court, when she has a secret stash of wildfire detonated under the Great Sept while they all attended what was meant to be her own blasphemy trial.
- In Breaking Bad, Big Bad Gus Fring ostensibly surrenders his entire business to a rival Mexican cartel. He is invited to the Don's hacienda in Mexico, and after the 'negotiation' ends, Gus poisons himself, the Don and all his lieutenants with a laced bottle of rare tequila. He then escapes quickly enough to get himself medically treated before the poison kills him too.
- In Designated Survivor, the the US president and most of his staff is killed by a terrorist bombing, promoting the eponymous protagonist (see Real Life for more) to presidency.
- In Jericho, the President is addressing a joint session of Congress when the Nuclear attack that kicks off the story happens. A succession crisis ensues and results in a Divided States of America.
- Happens in the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when the First Evil's followers blow up the Watchers' Council headquarters in London, killing almost all the leadership. And then in the final episode of Angel when Angel and his followers kill the entire leadership of the Circle of the Black Thorn in one night.
- In the backstory of Shattered Union, the entire US government is wiped out by an atomic bomb during a highly unpopular president-elect's inauguration speech, triggering the Second American Civil War.
- In Hitman (2016) this is the story behind the majority of your missions.
- In The Showstopper 47 must take out Dalia Margolis and Victor Novikov, the leaders of an international spy ring. Since they are the sole masterminds of the ring, it ceases to exist after their deaths.
- In The World Of Tomorrow you are tasked with killing Silvio Caruso, a genius but paranoid biologist who just developed a new super-virus, his assistant Francesca de Santis, who might be the only person that might recreate the virus, and then destroy the virus itself. With no means of recreating the virus, the project is cancelled afterwards.
- In A Gilded Cage 47 must kill Claus Strandberg, who scamed billions of dollar to provoke riots and his partner general Reza Zaydan who wants to use the riots to establish a military dictatorship. With the people having no one to riot against anymore and the military having no one capable of becoming dictator, the plans are terminated.
- In Freedom Fighters 47 is tasked with killing the leaders of a paramilitary terrorist group. With all of them dead the group is apparently disbanded.
- Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars: One of Nod's first acts is to destroy the GDI space station Philadelphia, with almost the entire GDI leadership onboard, with the exception of Secretary of the Treasury, Redmond Boyle.
- Non-lethal example: In the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic two-parter "To Where And Back Again", the Changelings launch a coordinated strike and capture pretty much every powerful pony in Equestria within a week, allowing them to use their shapeshifting powers to take their place.
- In the Star Wars: The Clone Wars episode "Eminence", Maul has all the leaders of the Black Sun decapitated in one fell swoop by Savage when they refuse to join them.
- In Batman: The Brave and the Bold this was Baroness Von Gunther's plan (possible page quote):
You will be with the angels when I launch this missile at the Geneva arms conference, eliminating the leaders of two dozen nations in one fell swoop! Then, from out of the chaos, Baroness Von Gunther and her forces will rise up to take control!
- Avatar: The Last Airbender: After infiltrating the Earth Kingdom capital of Ba Sing Sae, Azula works with Long Feng and the corrupt Dai Li to take over the city by capturing all the high-ranking officials and generals who might be able to oppose them. The Earth King eventually escapes with the help of the Gaang but is still forced to leave his city.
- Queen Olga of Kiev is a repeat offender.
- Following the murder of her husband Igor by the hands of uprising Drevlians, she pretended that she was willing to negotiate. The Drevlians sent 20 high-ranking diplomats by boat. Olga proceeded to have the boat seized and then had the diplomats buried alive. In their boat.
- Next, she convinced the Drevlian prince Mal that she was ready to marry him. He arrived with much of his royal court in tow. She invited them to clean up from the long trip in a banya (Russian sauna) - which she had promptly locked from the outside and burned to the ground.
- Then she invited the remaining Drevlian leadership to a funeral feast in Igor's honour, which they again happily attended. After one night of partying and excessive drinking, Olga had 5000 of them rounded up and massacred by her army.
- Finally, she made her move on their capital Iskorosten, where she had all remaining Drevlians burned to death in their houses, in a ruse involving birds and burning pieces of sulphur.
- Several countries have security mechanisms in effect to avert this trope from happening. The US government, for instance, has a "Designated Survivor" who is brought to a safe location when the rest of the government is supposed to gather at a single place. This was put in place during the Cold War, when the government being wiped out by a nuclear holocaust was a very real threat.
- Poland has had multiple unfortunate run-ins with this trope.
- The fate of a good chunk of the 2010 Polish government shows what damage the absence of a "Designated Survivor" programme can cause; On a state visit to Katyn Forest (for what exactly, see below), the Tupolev 154 carrying (quoth The Other Wiki) "the President of Poland Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria, the former President of Poland in exile Ryszard Kaczorowski, the chief of the Polish General Staff and other senior Polish military officers, the president of the National Bank of Poland, Polish Government officials, 18 members of the Polish Parliament [and] senior members of the Polish clergy" crashed with no survivors. While it was ruled an accident, Conspiracy Theories naturally abound.
- Almost sixty-seven years earlier, in 1943, Poland's government-in-exile during World War II struck a similar fate. During a troop inspection in the Mediterranean, the B-24 transporting the Polish Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces General Wladislaw Sikorski, Polish Army Chief of General Staff Major General Tadeusz Kilimecky, Army Chief of Operations Colonel Andrzey Marecky, plus an assortment of adjutants and some British dignitaries, crashed off the coast of Gibraltar, crippling the remaining government dangerously. Again, plenty of Conspiracy Theories abound.
- Three years earlier, in 1940, Stalin had rounded up 22,000 Polish military officers, policemen, members of the Polish intelligentsia, as well as anyone else who he deemed being capable of leading an opposition against Soviet occupation and summarily executed them in and around the Katyn Forest near Smolensk.
- There was a Nazi conspiracy to assassinate British PM Winston Churchill, American President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Soviet Gen-Sec Josef Stalin when they gathered for the Tehran Conference in 1943, but it was dismissed by Hitler himself as 'unfeasable'.
- Narrowly averted during the 20 July Coup attempt, in which Colonel von Stauffenberg, in collusion with several other German officers and politicians, stashed a bomb in the Wolfsschanze, the Nazi German military headquarters, during a 1944 meeting headed by Hitler. Though some generals and officers were killed, Hitler himself survived, and promptly ordered his Schutzstaffel to arrest and execute the conspirators.
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