On August 4, 2020 at 6:07 PM a massive explosion shook the Lebanese capital Beirut. It was preceded by a fire of unknown origin that started in a port warehouse few minutes before the blast. The fire reached another warehouse where a large quantity of chemical compounds (Ammonium Nitrate) was stored.
The chain of events that led to this catastrophe seems flawlessly connected from the day the shipment of nitrate arrived to Beirut port in 2013 until they evaporated in the 2020 explosion. A series of shadowy events, negligence and catastrophic actions led to what was described as the third biggest non-nuclear explosion in history.
The story started in Syria where the Assad regime was shifting from a peaceful popular uprising to a total war, and he needed ammunition and weapons that could not be provided through the regular channels due to foreign sanctions and monitoring. He had to find more subtle ways to ship large amount of this chemical fertilizer which was used in the production of barrel bombs, a key army weapon produced to terrorize the population. Through Syrian, Lebanese and Russian businessmen a plan was set to purchase off-the-radar a large quantity (2,750 ton) of ammonium nitrate and ship it from eastern Europe using misdirection techniques, from changing cargo crews to forging documents using shell companies, and with the sole objective of leading the shipment to Beirut.
And amidst the Syrian war the regime was under world scrutiny and couldn’t use Syrian air, land or sea ports to receive weapons, aids or highly explosive materials. Nevertheless, the story goes furthermore with sources stating that Hezbollah benefited from this shipment for manufacturing locally-made missiles in various locations across Beirut suburbs and across south Lebanon.
Shipment Arrives to Beirut Port
Lebanon was chosen as the final destination through a complicated plan aimed at covering the itinerary of the shipment. Starting from the factory to the loading dock in Georgia to Istanbul, then switching an entire crew for a new one who didn’t know the nature of the shipment, to rerouting the cargo documents to Mozambique, to a halt in Greece before arriving to Beirut coincidentally after a sudden technical issue.
It reached Beirut port in 2013 at the highest peak of the Syrian war, on land a team of official collaborators from different security agencies were ready to receive the shipment and stall the documents process. The whole operation was kept under strict secrecy between top port authorities and security/customs heads; most affiliated to political figures known for their close ties with the Syrian regime. Then the large quantity was most probably transported to Syria through different mediums such as heavy trucks into the Syrian inland; or even by small boats towards the Syrian coast.
In a war where the Syrian Army dropped more than 80,000 barrel bomb on cities, a need for ammonium nitrate, the main component of the bomb was in high and urgent demand. Tons were then transported during the darkness of the night from Beirut port to Syrian military facilities and other Hezbollah workshops. Few months later in 2014, Syria witnessed the highest rate of barrel bombs attack in the war, then continued on the same path until 2015 when these violent attacks attracted world attention and were condemned for their violence. Fearing an investigation by foreign agencies on Assad capability to procure raw materials for such weapon, the Syrian regime stopped all nitrate shipments from Lebanon.
Back in Beirut, a quantity of approximately 500 tons of Nitrate Ammonium remained and were then transported to another sealed hangar along with other confiscated materials such as industrial oil, fireworks, and paint. The involved team got worried of holding such quantity and material, and fearing any leak to other agencies or the press. It was then kept a secret for five years with no questions asked, at a time when Lebanon was in its usual political dispute with no president or active government. During that time no one knows if some quantity of nitrate was sold to farming retailers to make profit via the ministry of agriculture.
In 2016 a new president was sworn in, Gen. Michel Aoun. He continued with the same pattern as his predecessors when dealing with security agencies; he waited for their reports rather than conduct thorough investigation of each branch. Instead, he chose to restructure/reward most of the heads involved in the shipment plot, from the head of customs and the port director to the head of national security. With these new appointments and the friendly reconciliation of Saad Hariri and Samir Geagea with Aoun/Bassil, things seemed more in control at the port and the whole operation with the infamous shipment were to be forgotten. During that time the financial and political stability was at stack in Lebanon with sporadic protests in Beirut downtown by many civil movements with minimum worries from the authorities, until the culmination of the popular unrest supported by political parties no longer in good relation with the Aoun administration.
Then came the events of October 17, followed by the resignation of Hariri’s government and the appointment of a new prime minister (Diab), that opened the door for both sides to expose mutual shady affairs. Soon after, several cables were exchanged among security agencies mentioning “dangerous materials” at the Beirut port, the circle expanded to reach Baabda presidential palace and the bureau of the prime minister Diab. Intelligence and counter intelligence information were being circulated about the affair, and heat was roaming above the main conspirators’ head, who started feeding their superiors with false statements in a way to mitigate about the importance of the event.
By July 2020 the President of Lebanon Michel Aoun had already received an official cable informing him about the explosive materials at the port, but he refrained from taking any prompt action and sent it back to the government for more clarifications. At that time, PM Diab was also informed with intermittent and contradictory details ranging from “highly explosive” and “old TNT” to “anodyne agriculture fertilizer”. Although not in the media yet, the affair was intensifying due to the rise in political dispute among different factions, and with every side wanting to accuse the other, Diab opened a channel of communication with Beirut port officials asking for more explanations.
The reply was long-awaited due to Eid Al Adha holidays and the sudden sanitary lock-downs. On August 3rd, an official at Beirut port phoned the prime minister bureau and presented an unclear response with contradicting elements and refrained from sending any official documents about his declaration. The Serail spokesperson informed PM Hassan Diab about the call, the latter decided to schedule a visit to the port the next day with media presence. At that moment, the seven year old secret affair was public. Until late at night of that August 3rd, the bureau of PM Diab kept receiving phone calls to underplay the importance of the affair, keep the media out and refrain from having a field visit. At 11:00, Diab’s chief of bureau received a last phone call which informed him about the need to cancel tomorrow’s visit until things are cleared out, on which Diab accepted.
The Usual Gateway
A simple glimpse to Lebanon’s history in dealing with a problematic issue always resumed to physical assassination and arson. The elimination of a figure is always an opportunity to weaken an opponent and reshuffle power within a political gridlock. While fire on the other hand is the easiest option to destroy sensitive documents, or as a cover-up to act under the radar, with the chance to claim the fire was a regrettable incident.
Throughout the night on August 3rd, conspirators were planning to take a prompt action the next day; and time not being in their favor the most convenient option remained fire. In such situation, the idea is to take action then act accordingly without any consideration of the consequences. The timing was great as most people were still in partial lock down, the idea was to start a fire inside the port when streets are empty before the curfew, call Beirut firefighters and keep them busy all night, while port authorities work on moving goods to a safer place, among them the nitrate ammonium. Without ever ruling out the possibility that these same conspirators deliberately wanted to destroy the ammonium, without knowing the devastating consequences of this action.
On August 4th, the port employees already left at 3:00 PM, the street were getting emptied, people were respecting the curfew in their houses and a simple fire at Beirut port grabbed people ironic attention without raising any safety concerns. Coincidence does not stand a chance in this affair, the last 24 hours were tremendously critical between releasing the news to the media, the decision of PM Diab to drop a field visit and the timing of the fire/explosion. Just like any event in Lebanon, the public opinion is always divided into several narrative each believing it as the truth, add to that politicians and parties shifting the story to meet their agenda or protect some of the conspirators.
Who ordered and amassed this quantity of nitrate? claimed some, others accuse Israel to be behind the attack, and others theories ranging from Turkish plot to a Hezbollah secret operation. The result was a tragedy set by a combination of smuggling, plot, negligence, collusion and premeditated manslaughter. In Lebanon we always aim for the empirical or convenient truth, and my theory could not be far from that, as without any proofs it remains just a feeling.
Menaribo: June 2021