Collins and Lapierre Drink to Literary Conspiracy

updated 09/08/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/08/1980 01:00AM

Apocalypse is averted in the closing pages of The Fifth Horseman, but the somber fact is that Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre's scenario could conceivably be played out in reality in the 1980s. "Portraying Qaddafi as a madman posing a nuclear threat is not totally farfetched," a State Department official admits. "Because of oil revenues, Qaddafi has the money to buy nuclear weapons and technology." The Libyan leader reportedly purchased an "atomic warhead" for $1 million from a Lebanese, who turned out to be a con man. After Qaddafi learned that he had been duped, the man was shot down in Paris. Similarly, Libya has tried without success to buy nuclear materials from the U.S., China and France and is said to be financing a $500 million gas centrifuge plant in Pakistan that is expected to produce enriched uranium for bombs in two to five years.

But would Qaddafi actually resort to nuclear blackmail? "When pressed to the wall, the colonel is totally unpredictable," says the high State Department source. "The destruction of Israel is almost a tenet of religion with him." Another enemy is Egypt's Anwar Sadat, who early in his presidency rebuffed Qaddafi's overtures of friendship and calls him the "Libyan lunatic."

Even before the recent disclosures that Billy Carter was receiving money from Libya, the U.S. was cautious in handling Qaddafi. "We Western countries hope our involvement with Libya will modify his behavior," a diplomat in Washington explains. It has not been very effective so far. After four attacks on American diplomats, including the burning of the embassy in Tripoli in December, all U.S. officials were pulled out, although diplomatic relations between the two countries still exist.

At home, the colonel, who came to power as a 27-year-old signal corps captain in a 1969 military coup, controls dissidents with mass arrests. Frequent show trials of "deviationists and opportunists" have appeared on Libyan television. Abroad, Qaddafi's "death squads" roamed Europe and the Middle East, gunning down nine of the colonel's enemies before the operation was halted in June.

Collins and Lapierre's research for The Fifth Horseman took two years and cost $200,000. At one point, Collins managed to scan a 15-page CIA psychological profile of Qaddafi. Its conclusion: The Libyan is not mentally unbalanced within the context of his own society. "For a Bedouin, peace may not be a desirable state," explains Collins. "Peace means submission and a Bedouin must not submit."

The authors drew the settings for the 478-page novel as carefully as they did Qaddafi's character. The Joint Chiefs of Staff command post described by Collins and Lapierre is a near replica of the Pentagon's National Military Command Center. There have been more than 50 nuclear extortion attempts in the U.S. since 1970, and the Nuclear Explosives Search Team (NEST), first set up in 1975, has been called in on several of them. At the Alternate National Warning Center in Olney, Md., Collins learned of a computer that was programmed to give the effects of a nuclear bomb dropped on major U.S. cities. He asked for New York's Doomsday figures to be punched out and has included much of the response in The Fifth Horseman.

Collins, 50, the Yale graduate son of a West Hartford, Conn, lawyer, and Lapierre, 48, the internationally educated son of a French diplomat, traded off research assignments in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East. Lapierre interviewed Menachem Begin and former Defense Minister Ezer Weizman to sense how they would react if faced with a bomb threat. (Begin demurred, but Weizman said Israel would eliminate the potential attackers.) Lapierre also spent three weeks living with illegal settlers on the West Bank.

Collins and Lapierre, who first met when both were assigned to SHAPE headquarters in 1955, wrote The Fifth Horseman near Saint-Tropez on the French Riviera, where they own homes on the same hillside. Each writes a passage and reads it aloud to the other, who subsequently translates it into his native language. The text shuffles back and forth five or six times until the writing is homogenized. The technique has produced four best-sellers: Is Paris Burning?, Or I'll Dress You in Mourning, O Jerusalem! and Freedom at Midnight.

In this, their first novel, Collins and Lapierre used some real-life government leaders but none whom they believed would be out of office when the book was published. The President (who is never named) was originally based on Sen. Edward Kennedy but became a Carter-like figure when the Kennedy campaign faltered. Collins modeled the look of the female terrorist on Diane Von Furstenberg.

The Fifth Horseman is already a best-seller in several U.S. cities after only two weeks. Paperback rights were sold to Avon for $1.5 million and Miloš Forman will direct the movie for Paramount. The authors, however, await Qaddafi's reaction. The only Libyan to comment so far is a cultural attaché in Paris. He castigated the novel as "part of a plot to prevent Third World nations from obtaining nuclear weapons."

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