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The Fifth Horseman is a novel (hard cover, paperback, and book on audio cassette) written by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. In a suspenseful novel of terrorist threat, Libyan leader Qaddafi holds 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, even though it was meant for peaceful purposes. Paramount Pictures, which was planning to make a film based on the book, dropped the idea in the fear that some fanatics would try to emulate the scenario in real life.

A related book, with much the same plot and even the same jokes, "Is New York Burning?" examines the same scenario, except exchange George W. Bush for Jimmy Carter, exchange Osama bin Laden for Muammar al-Gaddafi, and the present day for 1980-1981.

Plot

The book opens with a freighter docking in New York City carrying the bomb, other cargo, and secretly, one Palestinian terrorist, Kamal Dahaji, to join his brother and sister, and fellow terrorists, Whalid and Laila, whose father had died of sadness after losing their West Bank home in the Six Day War. The bomb had been built by Whalid, a nuclear scientist, in Libya. Whalid had originally dedicated his life to peaceful nuclear energy. But Kamal reminded Whalid of their Muslim vow to avenge their father on pain of death, and was ready to kill a backslidden Muslim, even his brother. Furthermore, as the three of them were deported after an attempt to steal plutonium at Cadarache, his French wife had committed suicide in French police (DST) custody, which Kamal was ready to exploit. The Japanese built the bomb detonator with multiple protections against electromagnetic NEST gear and attempts to defuse it, and even a feature to detonate automatically given the force of a telephone directory dropped on it. Whalid needs a cassette tape as the programming for the detonator. He is able to buy three for a few dollars.

Laila, in disguise, personally delivers the written threat (encourage Israel to remove its civilian settlements from the West Bank by such a time, don't tell the media, don't evacuate the city, or else) by Qadafi to the White House, with instructions on how to retrieve technical designs as proof from an airport locker. The President (resembling Jimmy Carter in youth and religiosity) and his team agonize over the bomb design and the threat (it is a workable bomb design) to the final assessment by the Department of Energy ("Mr. President, this is not an atomic bomb..." relief lasts only a few seconds... "it is my sad duty to tell you... this is a three megaton hydrogen bomb").

French intelligence is also involved. A French nuclear scientist had been murdered some years earlier, his technical papers on building a nuclear fusion power plant stolen purportedly by Corsican criminals demanding a ransom, the originals returned to the police after the ransom was paid, but copies of which went to Qaddafi. The papers were based on the principles of nuclear fusion. Clearly, French leaders wanted to prevent opposition to nuclear energy by keeping certain criminal matters secret. Later, the French determine that one of their nuclear advisors, Paul-Henri de Serre, was an art thief, first stealing from India, and then attempting to smuggle art out of Libya. It was a set up. Paul-Henri was coerced into helping the Libyans steal plutonium from their [International Atomic Energy Agency] reactor, but he fully cooperated and within hours identified his Palestinian contacts as Whalid and Kamal.

Qaddafi's logic as presented in the book is quite clear. A simple atomic bomb killing maybe ten thousand would invite a massive U.S. nuclear strike killing his two million people. But Qadafi's use of a hydrogen bomb threatens to kill eight million, which would make perfect terrorist sense. Naturally, Menachim Begin regards this as unacceptable: he believes God gave past- and present-day Israel the land.

The nuclear search team NEST is activated, travelling on 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 shoe-leather 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."

Qaddafi offers to provide a real-time nuclear test for the President, including an air corridor for an observation plane. A KH-11 satellite and an SR-71 Blackbird simultaneously provide the visual proof in real time. The authors then flash back to how the Libyans built the bomb.

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 plutonium pellets to the legs of pigeons and setting them loose.

It also looks bleak for New York City, whose mayor was summoned to the White House under false pretenses and told face-to-face by the President of the nuclear threat. Not only is evacuation ruled out, but some fallout shelters are loaded with junk, badly stocked with no water and crackers so old they made disaster survivors in Central America sick, and in many cases, sans the phenobarbitual tablets the drug users found before the police could remove them. New York City's air raid sirens were falling down, one killing a shopper at Macy's. 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.

Israel's military leaders do not trust the President during this crisis. Israel almost successfully launches its own nuclear strike against Libya, using F4 Phantoms and their plutonium atom bombs, and an electronic countermeasures plane that looks like an El Al jumbo jet, until the French ambassador warns Israel that the Soviets will launch a nuclear strike against Israel unless they desist. Begin horrifically deduces that the U.S. President asked the Soviets to threaten Israel not to vaporize Libya while the crisis was going on: the CIA considers Qaddafi extremely clever, clever enough have a backup plan to vaporize New York City. The abort code Shadrock, Shadrock, Shadrock goes out to the F4 pilots.

Rand and Rocchia make progress: first, checking bills of lading from the harbor, and questioning longshoremen about unusual activity: an inexperienced client who paid the dock workers a tip higher than usual. Further checking determines a discrepancy between what was listed on the manifest and what actually made it to the destination. Rand and Rocchia check the rental vehicle involved and discover it was rented with a stolen driver's license. The pickpocketing victim, Mr. Putman, reviewing photographs, identifies Carmen, a Colombian whose large breasts help distract her victims. Rocchia makes up a criminal incident involving Latinos to get an Italian woman to tell her where Carmen lives. Capturing her associates leads them to a Jewish document forger, Benny. 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 short time later, Rand and Rocchia arrest Nabil, 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 female Mossad agent waiting outside, unless he becomes a witness in the case. Nabil is convinced to give up Laila Dajani. 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 with options to invade the West Bank to prevent the nuclear bomb from being detonated. Plans are made to land in Lebanon, to use Jordanian airports to refuel Sixth Fleet aircraft, of course having to inform King Hussein and get his permission. Meanwhile, his negotiations with Qaddafi, and negotiations with Begin, are going nowhere. Qaddafi had already successfully managed to threaten the Sixth Fleet to withdraw from the Libyan coast. Not even the President's offer to sacrifice himself as a hostage and work out the West Bank problem helps. Qaddafi thwarts an attempt by the Americans to use psychological operations equipment and experts against him by using sunglasses, and uses the same technology to determine that the President, who is not wearing shades, is lying. Later, the mayor of New York City also unsuccessfully negotiates with Begin.

Rocchia is very upset when he asks a nuclear technician what he is carrying and the technician honestly indicates, "Geiger counter". He feels betrayed that the FBI would be told, but not the New York City police like himself. Rocchia's superior manages to calm him down. Rocchia had delivered good leads, he wants to take his daughter with Down's syndrome far north from the city. "If anyone deserves a trip to Connecticut, it's you... " 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 has to look at dozens of other children, all with disabilities, who will be incinerated if the bomb goes off. The nun does not see Rocchia any more when she returns with the daughter. His car is gone.

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 that had stood by the United States. Also simultaneously, a crucial deadline passes and the nuclear bomb does not explode. Now some distance safely away from the bomb, Whalid finally tells his brother Kamal, he did not build the bomb to slaughter New York City residents, he did it to make Libya parallel with Israel, the Soviets, France, China, Britain, and America. Whalid had fed the wrong tape deliberately to the computer while his brother and sister had been working on the antenna on the roof. 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 manually by himself.

The President makes a decision. He is not merely the President of 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 position a total of thirty-two sub-launched nuclear missiles, each with MIRVs, to annihilate every single square mile of Libya, while minimizing fallout on Egypt and Tunisia, and orders his admiral to launch them unless the bomb is found and defused, or unless Qaddafi extends his latest ultimatum.

Qaddafi reports that the President's acceptance of the original terms is not acceptable. One of Qaddafi's own ministers protests, America has capitulated. Qaddafi replies that the Americans are stalling for time. The President finally levies his nuclear threat... I have ordered thirty two nuclear missiles targeted on Libya, "they will destroy every living thing on Libyan soil... I will order the submarines to fire their missiles, even if it means the destruction of the finest city on Earth...." if you don't extend your deadline and cease blackmailing a friendly nation. "I pray God you believe my words."

The minister is ready to faint with fear. "No, Qaddafi... our families, our children... you cannot!"

The reply he gets, "I can, my brother, and I have."

Meanwhile, a suspicious neighbor hears the gunshot and calls police, who identify Whalid based on a tattoo and the French description of Whalid, Kamal, and Laila faxed to the CIA at Langley. The New York City police and FBI know who they are looking for. Kamal gets out of the car and tells his sister to drive quickly to Canada. 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 Kemal is with the bomb. "Police! Don't move!" Kamal expertly fires a succession of shots from an automatic pistol with his feedayeen training. Rocchia drops to the floor, safe, but silently. 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, fatally wounded, but Rocchia is able to kill Kamal with two shots even before NEST fires buckshot into the room.

The nuclear scientists review their options. Is the detonator pressurized and set to explode if opened? Use a laser to burn a tiny hole in the plastic case, a gas detector detects no escaping inert gas. The scientists slice a square out of the casing. Should they use electromagnetic or untraviolet energy to burn out the detonator's computer? Ultraviolet: electronmagnetic radiation could be detected, prompting the detonator to explode. The scientists proceed, and are alarmed at a succession of rapid beeps, but they've done it, the detonator's computer is fried, and New York is safe.

That leaves Laila. Not surprisingly, she is eager to get to Canada and away from the bomb, she is speeding ever so slightly. A police car gives chase, Laila steps on the gas on an icy highway. Not much ice on roads in the West Bank. She manages to almost lose the police car, but she hits a stretch of black ice, she loses control, crashes in the opposite lane, and the car's gasoline tank explodes, burning her alive. "Christ, like those guys used to do in Nam." a passerby laments. "What ever got into her?" the officer asks. "All I had her for was seven miles over the limit."

French version

The French version of "The Fifth Horseman", while it follows the same general plot, still differs from the English one; certain scenes are deleted (such as the scene where Carter threatens Libya with nuclear retaliation), others are added in, and not everything happens in the same order.

Most notably, the ending (after the bomb is discovered) is not the same. Qaddafi is never sent the telegram quoting the Quran, nor does the President state that he "will not get away with this". Instead, the crisis is concluded with Carter inviting both Qaddafi and Begin to Camp David in secret to seek a final solution to the Palestinian question. In the last scene, Rocchia is informed of this quietly, and remarks on the absurdity of risking the lives of six million people for this to happen.

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