The Fifth Horseman (novel)

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The Fifth Horseman is a 1980 techno-thriller novel written by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. The story revolves around Libyan leader Gaddafi holding New York City hostage with the threat of setting off a hidden nuclear bomb. The book had such a shocking effect that the French President cancelled the sale of nuclear reactors to Libya,[citation needed] even though they were meant for peaceful purposes.

A related book, with much the same plot and even the same joke,[1][2][3] "Is New York Burning?"[4] examines the same scenario, but exchanges George W. Bush for Jimmy Carter, Osama bin Laden for Muammar al-Gaddafi, and 2005 for 1980.


A bomb and Kamal Dajani arrive in New York City by freighter. The bomb was built by Kamal's brother Whalid, a nuclear scientist, in Libya. Although Whalid and Kamal made a Muslim vow on pain of death to avenge their father's death and loss of their West Bank home, Whalid had originally dedicated his life to peaceful nuclear energy at Cadarache. That was until Kamal was ready to enforce the vow. French police subsequently arrested Kamal, Whalid, and their sister Laila, and deported them to Beirut so as not to jeopardize the politics of nuclear energy. When the police questioned Whalid's French wife, she committed suicide. Kamal and their mother exploited the event for Whalid (suggested murder plus rape) and she bade them help Gaddafi in Libya.

Laila, in disguise, personally delivers the written threat from Gaddafi to the White House, with instructions on how to retrieve technical designs as proof from an airport locker. The President (unnamed, but resembling Jimmy Carter in age, religiosity, Navy service, etc.) and his team agonize over the bomb design and the final assessment by the Department of Energy that it is a three megaton H-bomb.

The nuclear search team NEST is activated, travelling via Starlifter cargo plane from Nevada to McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey. Meanwhile, combined teams of New York City police and FBI, including New York police detective Angelo Rocchia and FBI agent Mike Rand, conduct a shoe-leather investigation field research on the incoming shipment, the false and stolen documents, and the three terrorists, moving ever closer to the truth in a logical progression, to look for "a barrel of chlorine gas."

It looks bleak for NEST. Its equipment can only look so far down from the air and only so far up from the street. Even a water bed could neutralize the radioactive emissions of the bomb. Also, other terrorists help to confuse NEST, by attaching radioactive pellets to the legs of pigeons and setting them loose.

It also looks bleak for New York City, whose mayor, Abe Stern, is summoned to the White House under false pretenses and told face-to-face by the President of the nuclear threat. Not only has evacuation been ruled out by Gaddafi, but some fallout shelters are loaded with junk, susceptible to flooding, or badly stocked, with no supplies or rotten supplies. New York City's air raid sirens were literally falling down. New York City did have a good radio / TV public address system for the mayor, but it was unmistakably clear that up to eight million people in and around the city would die of burns, blast, flying debris, or radiation, and New England would get the fallout immediately after. New York City officials contemplate evacuation plans but scrap them because few people have cars, and civilian train operators cannot be counted on to work in a crisis.

Israel's military leaders do not trust the President during this crisis. Israel launches an air strike against Libya, using F-4 Phantoms and their plutonium atom bombs, and an electronic countermeasures plane, which proceeds until the French ambassador (an Israeli general warned the U.S. Embassy) warns Israel that the Soviets will launch a nuclear strike against Israel unless the strike is aborted. Begin, horrified, deduces that the US President asked the Soviets to keep Israel in line, and backs down. Menachem Begin will not vacate the West Bank settlements, as demanded by Gaddafi; the Israeli Army might even mutiny if ordered to vacate the settlements.

Rand and Rocchia make progress: first, checking bills of lading from the harbor, and questioning longshoremen about unusual activity. Further checking determines a discrepancy between what was listed on a cargo ship's manifest and what actually made it to the destination. Rand and Rocchia check the rental vehicle involved, and discover that it was rented with a stolen driver's license. The owner of the license, who recently lost it to a pickpocket, Mr. Gerald Putman, reviewing photographs, identifies Carmen, a Colombian whose large breasts help distract her victims. Rocchia invents a criminal incident to persuade an Italian woman to tell him where Carmen lives. Capturing her and her associate Pedro Torres leads them to a Jewish document forger, Benny Muscowitz. Rocchia's aggressive manner makes Benny finally invoke his right against self-incrimination, but Rand is able, without giving too many details about the Israeli crisis, to encourage Benny to talk. A French nuclear scientist who worked in Libya, Paul-Henri de Serre, turns out to be an art thief whom the Libyans set up. Paul-Henri identifies Whalid and Kamal, and the French fax the records of Whalid, Kamal, and Laila to the CIA. A short time later, Rand and Rocchia arrest Nabil Suleiman, who was wanted by Israel for a terrorist attack, and threaten to deport him, for lack of a U.S. visa, directly into the custody of a Mossad agent waiting outside, unless he becomes a witness in the case. Nabil is able to identify Laila and Kamal based on the French photos. Further questioning of New York citizens establishes that the same rental truck was in the location in question at the time in question.

The President has briefed the Rapid Deployment Force, in transit to Lebanon, with options to invade the West Bank.

Rocchia is very upset when he asks a nuclear technician what he's carrying and the technician honestly indicates, "Geiger counter". He feels betrayed that the FBI would be told the truth, but not the New York City police, like himself. Rocchia's superior manages to calm him down. Because Rocchia has produced good leads, he wants to take his daughter (who has Down syndrome) far north from the city. Rocchia is free to go, on the condition that he remain silent. He tries to ask the Catholic school for children with disabilities for permission to take her "to see relatives." The nun accedes, but in the meantime, Rocchia sees dozens of other children, all with disabilities, who will be incinerated if the bomb goes off. The nun no longer see Rocchia when she returns with his daughter; Rocchia has left.

The President consults his advisors again. One finally says that during the oil embargo and the Iranian hostage crisis, when the Europeans wavered, it was Israel who stood by the United States. At the same time, a crucial deadline passes but the nuclear bomb does not explode. Now a safe distance away from the bomb, Whalid finally tells his brother Kamal that he did not build the bomb to incinerate New York City residents, he did it to bring Libya to nuclear parity with Israel, the Soviets, France, China, Britain, and America. Whalid had deliberately given the wrong instructions to the computer while his brother and sister had been working on the antenna on the roof. He had to buy a three pack of audio cassettes at the start of the novel, so substituting a fake cassette was easy. Whalid, in self defense, tries to shoot his brother, and misses; Kamal breaks Whalid's trachea with an expert martial arts maneuver, causing Whalid to slowly suffocate to death. Kamal grabs the detonation checklist and Laila, and drives back to the bomb to detonate it himself, manually.

The President makes a decision. He is not merely the President of the people in New York City: he is the President of all Americans, and America is being bullied to invade an ally. This is an act of war, not just a crime. Finally, he orders two nuclear submarines to aim their SLBMs at Libya, and orders his admiral to launch them unless the bomb is found and defused, or unless Gaddafi extends his latest ultimatum.

Gaddafi reports that the President's acceptance of the original terms is not acceptable. One of Gaddafi's own ministers protests that America has capitulated. Gaddafi replies that the Americans are stalling for time. The President finally levies his nuclear threat. Gaddafi is the only cool head as his prime minister Salam Jalloud panics.

Meanwhile, a suspicious neighbor hears the gunshot (when Whalid tries to kill his brother) and calls the police, who identify Whalid based on a tattoo. The New York City police and FBI know for certain whom they're looking for. Kamal gets out of the car and tells Laila to drive to Montreal. He then steals an ambulance to finish his drive to the bomb. Rand and Rocchia hear about the ambulance on the radio, see it, and chase it. Rocchia cautiously enters the building where Kamal is working with the bomb. "Police! Don't move!" Kamal expertly fires a succession of shots from an automatic pistol. Rocchia drops to the floor, safe, but forced to keep silent. Rand tries to enter the building, thinking Rocchia is wounded. Rocchia can't warn Rand because he'd betray his position. Rand ultimately becomes Kamal's target, and is fatally wounded by Kamal; the encounter enables Rocchia to kill Kamal with two shots.

The nuclear scientists review their options. After determining that the case is safe to open, they choose ultraviolet radiation to burn out the microprocessor, and New York is safe.

This leaves Laila as a loose end. Not surprisingly, because she's eager to get to Canada, she drives fast, speeding slightly. A police car gives chase, and Laila almost manages to lose the police car, but she hits a stretch of black ice, loses control, and crashes in the opposite lane. The car's gas tank explodes, and Laila is burned alive. "Whatever got into her?" the officer asks. "All I had her for was seven miles over the limit."

The President's men want revenge. Carter will not murder two million Libyans, the families Salam Jalloud referred to in his protest to Gaddafi.

Heck, somebody grumbles, Israel will.

By the end of the story, Libya's east coast has nuclear-armed SCUDs facing Israel, both countries facing "the prospect of mutual suicide."

What Carter does do is send Gaddafi a telegram quoting the Quran: whoever ye shall be, death will overtake you, even though ye reside in lofty towers.[5]

Development history[edit]

The books was published by Michael Korda at Simon & Schuster in 1980.[6] The authors Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre were journalists—Collins having written for Newsweek and Lapierre for Paris Match.[6] According to Michael Korda, Charles Bluhdorn, founder of Gulf + Western which at the time was the parent company over Simon & Schuster and Paramount, became obsessed with the possibilities of the realities in the book. Bluhdorn would hold up meetings with financial managers to warn them of the danger written about in the book. To that end, Bluhdorn made it his mission to create a movie out of the book and tried to enlist Barry Diller then head of Paramount to his side. Ultimately Diller and Korda convinced Bluhdorn that making the film was a bad idea and it was abandoned.[6] The agent for the book was Irving "Swifty" Lazar.[6]

French version[edit]

The French version of "The Fifth Horseman," while it follows the same general plot, differs from the English version.[7] In the French version, Gadaffi is not sent the telegram quoting the Quran after the bomb is discovered. Nor does the President state that he "will not get away with this." Instead, the crisis is concluded with the President inviting both Gaddafi and Begin to Camp David in secret, to seek a permanent solution to the Palestinian question. The final scene of the French version shows Rocchia being quietly informed of this, and he remarks on the absurdity of risking the lives of six million people for this to happen. Laila, instead of being killed, is arrested by the police and sentenced to life imprisonment.


  1. ^ Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre. The Fifth Horseman (e-book edition). 2012, Renaissance Literary and Talent, Beverly Hills, CA. 1980, Simon and Schuster, New York City. Page 232. Official looking poster PROCEDURE TO FOLLOW IN THE EVENT OF A NUCLEAR ATTACK in NYPD custodian's office. List of instructions, last one "Kiss Your Ass Goodbye."
  2. ^ Print version. Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre (1980). New York City, Simon and Schuster. 229-230.
  3. ^ Poster may have resembled this
  4. ^ Collins, Larry and LaPierre, Dominique. Is New York Burning? Pembroke Pines, Florida: Phoenix Books, 2005.
  5. ^ Quran chapter An-Nisa (4), verse 78. Gaddafi was killed during an uprising (with NATO air support) in 2011.
  6. ^ a b c d Korda, Michael (1999). Another life : a memoir of other people (1st ed.). New York: Random House. ISBN 0679456597.
  7. ^ Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre. Le Cinque Cavalier. French printing of The Fifth Horseman, featuring English translation.