"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!"It's no secret that often, all that's needed to end a struggle is to get rid of the enemy's leadership — effectively decapitating the opposing organization. Military strategists, royal heirs, mafiosi, and putschists all can agree on that. While 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. May often take place at a Nasty Party or Board to Death. Note that this trope can just as likely occur by nobody's hands, and easily be triggered by either force majeure (such as, say, an earthquake) or just a tragic Contrived Coincidence. Compare to its Supertrope Decapitated Army, its sister tropes — The Purge and Straight for the Commander, and the subtrope — Ruling Family Massacre (which restricts itself to actual royal families). A Keystone Army may be affected in this way. Literal decapitating attacks without the domino effect 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!
— Baroness von Gunther, Batman: The Brave and the Bold
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Anime and Manga
- This happens in Mobile Suit Gundam where Char betrays and kills Garma Zabi as a start of his vengeance against the Zabis. Later on the show, Dozle Zabi falls in battle during the Battle of Solomon but his oldest brother, Gihren, kills his own father, Degwin, and the supreme commander of the Earth Federation, General Revil, in one blast with a solar ray when attempting to negotiate with peace. His sister, Kycilia, kills him for what he did but she too is killed by Char who blasts her with a rocket launcher. By the end of the show, the Zabi family has fallen at the end of the One Year War leaving Dozle's daughter, Mineva, as sole living member of the clan.
- 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.
- War of Kings: Apparently a favoured tactic of the Shi'ar Empire, their Imperial Guard is sent to perform one at the wedding of Ronan and Crystal (because the Inhumans accidentally destroyed a few Shi'ar cruisers on their way to take over the Kree). All it does is really piss off the Inhumans and the Kree.
- Dungeon Keeper Ami: The entirety of Crowned Death's intelligent troops gets 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Played literally in The Secret Service, where much of the world's leaders (including seemingly the entire White House, the entire British Royal Family 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.
- Early on in The Golden Circle, Poppy hacks the Kingsmen's database in order to locate their headquarters, as well as the homes of all their agents. She then launches ballistic missiles at all the targeted sites, killing all the agents except for Eggsy (who wasn't home) and Merlin (whose home address wasn't on the database).
- 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.
- 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.
- Emperor Palpatine of Star Wars loves this trope:
- Revenge of the Sith:
- The Jedi Order are the only serious threat to a Sith regime. Order 66 decimated the Jedi Knights, including the majority of the Jedi Council, leaving a spotty few to counter the Empire's millions-strong standing army.
- The Separatist Council gets a visit from the Emperor's right-hand man, who wordlessly locks them in the war room, and then massacres them. Nute Gunray's "... but we have been loyal!" reveals that to The Chessmaster, pawns are expendable.
- Further, according to 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 Return of the Jedi, he lures the Rebel Alliance into attempting one against him as bait for a trap, which in turn would have let the Empire destroy most of the Alliance's military. Unfortunately for him, his foresight proves fallible, and the Rebels' strike is ultimately successful, taking him out and dealing the Empire a crushing defeat they never recover from.
- Revenge of the Sith:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Discussed in Doctor Strangelove as the reason why Plan R exists and the original General Ripper was able to order his wing to execute it without the President's authorization—it was put in place as a retaliatory plan in case the Russians successfully managed to perform an attack that killed the American chain of command. Mostly it was there just as a political move to showcase some dissenting (or better read In-Universe as "whining") senators that the military was Crazy-Prepared enough... unfortunately, Ripper's free access to it is a case of Gone Horribly Wrong (or even Gone Horribly Right).
- Codex Alera: A somewhat more small-scale (and thus realistic) example popped up in book 3, Cursor's Fury. 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 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.
- Honor Harrington: In The 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. He frames a "rogue element of the People's Navy" for it, which gives him an excuse to purge the Navy of old regime loyalists.
- 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.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire, the Freys killed the vast majority of the northern lords during lord Edmure Tully's wedding, thus ending the War of the Five Kings in a single night.
- 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 William Prochnau's Trinity's Child, and it's HBO adaptation By Dawn's Early Light, this is initially defied. The Soviets and Americans deliberately try to avoid killing heads of state with their nuclear strikes. Harpoon explains this is because both sides need them alive to be able to negotiate a cease fire, otherwise the mechanisms in place to succeed them will not stop until the world is destroyed. Later, however, Colonel Fargo convinces the new Acting President to order their B-52s on a Grand Tour of the Soviet Union, taking out the Soviet leadership bunkers one by one.
- The last book of the Mage Winds trilogy features Herald-Mage Elspeth and a few hand-picked allies crossing Hardorn to kill the evil King Ancar and his two most powerful mages and save Valdemar from invasion. Justified since Hardorn has a Keystone Army that will collapse if the magic controlling its unwilling soldiers is disrupted.
- 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.
- 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.
- In the final episode of Angel, Angel and his followers kill the entire leadership of the Circle of the Black Thorn in one night.
- In Designated Survivor, the US president and most of his staff are killed by a terrorist bombing, promoting the eponymous protagonist (see Real Life for more) to the presidency.
- 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.
- As a comeuppance for the Red Wedding, the entire male leadership of House Frey is served poisoned wine by Arya Stark, disguised as Lord Walder Frey, whom she had murdered earlier together with his two sons.
- Euron Greyjoy ambushes the fleet of his niece, Yara, and captures the de facto leader of Dorne, Ellaria Sand and her daughter Tyene while killing two of the Sand Snakes. After Ellaria and Tyene were delivered to King's Landing, Cersei poisons the latter and forces the former to watch her to die while locking them up for the rest of their lives.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 bioengineer Silvio Caruso, who just developed a new super-virus, his assistant Francesca de Santis, who might be the only person capable of completing the virus without Caruso, 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 corrupt banker Claus Hugo Strandberg, who scammed billions of dollars 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 without a figurehead 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.
- In Mass Effect, this is part of the Reapers' periodic purge of spacefaring life: leave a space station at the heart of the mass relay network to serve as a convenient center for galactic civilization, then make their big return at that space station and take out all the leaders in one strike. After it's all done, they leave the empty station behind for the next cycle to find.
- In the Trespasser DLC for Dragon Age: Inquisition, this is the core of the "Dragon's Breath", a conspiracy hatched by the rogue Qunari viddasala: using their access to the eluvians, they had smuggled barrels of gaatlok (fantasy gunpowder) into the seats of power of most Southern kingdoms (including the Winter Palace, where the current Divine and the leaders of the Inquisition are convening), then blowing them all up in preparation for the full-on Qunari invasion of the south.
- 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 Emergency 4, terrorists detonate a bomb under a photo-op tribune during a Fictional United Nations congress. It's the player's job to rescue the survivors (of which there are comparatively few) and arrest the terrorists.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender: After infiltrating the Earth Kingdom capital of Ba Sing Se, 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.
- 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.
- Star Wars: The Clone Wars: In "Eminence", Maul has all the leaders of the Black Sun decapitated in one fell swoop by Savage when they refuse to join them.
- Princess Olga of Kiev was a repeat offender.
- Following the murder of her husband Igor at 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 promptly had 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 5,000 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.