There Is Still Much to Be Learned about the Beirut Explosion


Habib Battah | Al Jazeera - TRANSCEND Media Service

To prevent a tragic repeat, we should not be satisfied with simple, convenient, yet incomplete explanations.

People remove debris from a house damaged by the August 4 explosion in the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, August 7, 2020. [AP Photo/Felipe Dana]

17 Aug 2020 – It all began with a distant thud. My first instinct, like many others in Lebanon, was to look up to the sky. As I stepped out from the pharmacy I was in and scanned the clouds, I was almost certain that I would see an Israeli aircraft.  

I am very familiar with the sound of Israeli jets – ominous rumblings that gradually grow louder and then fade away, often with an ear-piercing sonic boom. They illegally enter Lebanese airspace over 1,000 times per year to hit targets here or in neighbouring Syria or simply to conduct “mock raids” around the country to show their muscle.

After craning my head upwards for a few minutes, I could not spot anything, so I assumed it to be the latter, and casually started walking towards my car.  

Then, suddenly, I lost my balance. It was as if the sky folded onto itself in a deafening crackling that shook the ground like an earthquake. Thinking we were under attack, as we have been so many times before, I jumped into my car and stepped on the gas. 

As I sped home, my mind raced through memories: That day in 2006, when massive US-made bunker buster bombs pummelled Beirut, shaking every building in the city and its suburbs. That time in 1996, when I watched Israeli jets fire missiles at a nearby power station from my window. Then that day in 2005, when my office swayed from side to side as one tonne of TNT ripped through a former prime minister’s motorcade just a few blocks away. What is it going to be this time, I wondered, as black smoke began filling the sky. I hoped against hope that it was just a freak accident.

When I got home,  just 10 minutes after the massive blast which I could still feel vibrating in my bones, I picked up my phone to check the news. 

The first tweet I saw on my timeline was not encouraging. Addressing 100,000 followers, a DC-based journalist was reporting two explosions, one at the Beirut port, and another near the residence of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. A detail was added for context: the blast came a few days before the international tribunal verdict into the explosion that killed Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – the same explosion that shook my office building in 2005. This was an obvious insinuation of nefarious motives. But I was immediately sceptical. How could someone two oceans and 9,000 kilometers away know what happened here within a few minutes? 

And yet the claim was repeated ad nauseam. Many US journalists and pundits took it as fact and ran with it. In a matter of minutes, however, the claims in that initial tweet were proven to be false. It was confirmed that there was no explosion at the palatial residence of Hariri. It was merely damaged, like thousands of other homes across the city.

This did not stop some from continuing to claim that they knew what had happened. When it became clear that the Beirut port was the epicentre of the explosion, a chorus of op-eds and blog posts appeared, mostly in Western news sites and those owned by certain pro-Western regimes in the Middle East, blaming Hezbollah for Beirut’s devastation. The theory was that it was Israeli planes that targeted the port, to destroy a large arsenal of explosives that Hezbollah had supposedly and irresponsibly stored there. It was largely based on the testimonies of several persons who claimed to have heard “the sounds of planes” just before the explosion, just as I thought I had.

There was one major problem with this theory: The Lebanese army and United Nations forces in Lebanon regularly track Israeli aircraft, and provide frequent updates detailing their movements in Lebanese airspace. But no information has been released to indicate their presence in Beirut on the day of the explosion. It was also suspicious that the theory was being pushed in unison by media outlets that claim Hezbollah’s elimination is key to regional stability.  

Many who blamed Hezbollah for the explosion in its immediate aftermath, while the city was still burning and bodies were still strewn across the streets, continue to claim that the group is responsible – directly or indirectly – for what happened.

The evidence that has emerged thus far, however, is telling a far more complicated, and less politically convenient, story.  

Since the August 4 explosion, dozens of photos, documents and official communications have emerged, across multiple Lebanese government agencies, as well as testimonies from foreign nationals and firms, all indicating that the blast was caused not by a secret Hezbollah arsenal, but 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate – a highly combustible material used to make fertilisers and bombs – that was stored in the port, in unsuitable climatic conditions, with no expert oversight, for more than six years.

In September 2013, a Russian-leased cargo vessel loaded with ammonium nitrate heading to Mozambique reportedly made an unscheduled stop in Beirut due to financial and mechanical troubles. Lebanese officials, citing unpaid fees and safety concerns, prevented the vessel from sailing, leading to it being abandoned by its owner. The ship’s dangerous cargo was then offloaded and placed in a hangar in the port. It appears to have remained there, untouched, until the devastating blast. 

Several inter-government correspondences that have emerged in Lebanese and international media since the blast indicate that officials scrambled to decide what to do with the explosive material for years, but failed to reach an agreement over who should take responsibility to destroy or sell it. According to a state security report quoted by Reuters, in June 2020, a judge was so concerned about its combustibility and possible theft, that he ordered a welding crew to patch up a hole in the hangar where it was being stored. Unsupervised, the crew inadvertently sent sparks flying and a shipment of fireworks stored nearby caught fire. Eventually, the fire spread to the ammonium nitrate, causing the blast that destroyed the port and a large swathe of the city. 

The claims in the report quoted by Reuters have since been confirmed by several other security sources in local media reports. Sources also told the Wall Street Journal that a preliminary state department assessment concluded that the blast was “accidental”. American explosives expert Dr Rachel Lance told the New York Times that the dark and reddish colour of the debris and smoke cloud that towered above the blast suggests that ammonium nitrate was present, and that it was not military grade. She likened the blast to 47 other major accidental explosions related to the same compound over the last century.

Many who rejected the Hezbollah arsenal theory seem to be satisfied with this explanation, not only because it is supported by material evidence, but also because Lebanon is notorious for government dysfunction and incompetence, and as a result, danger lurks in so many unexpected places across the country. 

The mishandling of dangerous substances has led to a number of disasters in recent years including at least a dozen explosions or uncontrolled blazes at gas stations and factories. Moreover, hazardous materials are stored in unsafe conditions in many homes, office buildings, malls and factories across the country. These materials are used by businesses and individuals to run private generators, because Lebanon’s electric grid can supply only about half the electricity people need. Power lines connecting giant private generators to houses and businesses drape the streets like spiderwebs, adding to the hazardous chaos. 

The daily public health risks do not end there. The widespread and unregulated use of industrial-grade fireworks, at private parties, weddings and even military celebrations, regularly cause devastating fires. The widespread practice of rubbish burning, a direct result of the government’s inability to manage a basic municipal service like garbage collection, is yet another cause of fires and toxic air pollution. Other dysfunctions and safety hazards abound: landfills and raw sewage dumped directly into the sea, routine discoveries of rotten food warehouses, appalling conditions at slaughterhouses, lawless and deadly highways with no speed limits or police presence, busy intersections with no traffic signals or even basic street lights.  

This is why it is easy for many to believe that the August 4 explosion was caused not by an Israeli air raid on a secret Hezbollah arsenal, but by the endless incompetence of local authorities.

Any student of Lebanese history should not be surprised by this labyrinth of dysfunction. Lebanon is a state only in name. What we actually have here is a band of competing militias. And that is because this country has been mired in an almost constant state of war since its founding. Many analysts tend to focus on the 1975-1990 civil war to provide a political context, but the decades preceding and following those years have been marked by dozens of other conflicts, from air strikes to assassinations involving both local and foreign actors. 

The perpetual chaos leaves no appetite or time to build a lasting state infrastructure or economy. There is no hierarchy of power or chain of command to plan or execute it. Every party rules its territory on its own terms. No cooperation, no teamwork, no unified national vision. And while many are happy to pounce on local backwardness as the essential cause, they often neglect the fact that this paralysis is also a direct consequence of global politics. Local factions active in the country all draw their support from foreign allies. Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Syria, France, and Israel have all supported, armed or bankrolled one militia or faction, and this has gone on for decades, transforming the country into a chess board of cold wars, plots and mysterious explosions.

Considering the endlessly fragmented power dynamics, and the consequent governmental dysfunction, it is not difficult to understand how all types of accidents can and do happen regularly in Lebanon. 

But this does not mean we should stop asking questions about the blast that devastated the capital city, claimed hundreds of lives and left thousands homeless.  

Beirut is volatile and highly dysfunctional, but it is also one of the most closely watched cities in the world. Where were the world’s intelligence agencies, who we know run extensive operations to keep tabs on Beirut’s internal affairs, when an unseaworthy ship loaded with tonnes of explosives docked unannounced in the city’s main port? Let’s assume local authorities were too incompetent and clueless to notice, but did these mighty intelligence agencies also miss the arrival of this ticking time bomb?

It is hard to believe that no one was looking. A fleet of United Nations peacekeeping ships patrol Lebanon’s seas 24/7 with the explicit task of preventing “arms and related material” from reaching the port of Beirut. Their mission, which was mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 1701 to end the 2006 war, was specifically aimed at preventing arms shipments to Hezbollah. Earlier this year, the mission celebrated hailing its 100,000th ship. Was the Rhosus, the dilapidated vessel that carried the ammonium nitrate to Lebanon, not one one them? And what about a diplomatic cable seen by the New York Times that indicates an American contractor had reported the massive ammonium nitrate shipment back in 2016. Why was his warning never reviewed? Or was it?

It is impossible to know if this latest Beirut explosion will be any different than thousands of other bombings and attacks this country has witnessed that remain shrouded in mystery and allow each party to come up with their own convenient and politically profitable explanation. While it is easy to fall down the conspiracy rabbit hole, or claim it was just an “accident” caused by governmental dysfunction and incompetence, we should not be satisfied with simple and opportune explanations. There are so many points in the six year timeline of this impending tragedy where someone, somewhere could have done something. What we need to figure out now is what prevented so many from acting, if we truly want to avoid potential future disasters.  



Habib Battah is an investigative journalist and founder of the news site


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