A helicopter puts out a fire at the scene of an explosion at the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020. Photo: STR / AFP

According to Lebanese officials, the massive explosion that rocked Beirut on Tuesday was caused by simple, though tragic, negligence over the storage of 2,700 metric tons of ammonium nitrate that had inadvertently landed on Lebanon’s shores.

According to these accounts, after a ship carrying the chemical, which can be used as fertilizer as well as for making bombs, was abandoned in 2014, the cargo was transferred onshore to a warehouse – supposedly the safer option. And there it lay until the horrific event on Tuesday.

The official story, however, raises some questions. For example, why did the owner of the shipment walk away from more than a million dollars’ worth of cargo? Next, a local journalist claimed on national TV that security-agency sources told him that during a routine check three months ago at the ill-fated Warehouse 12 at the port, they found military-grade explosives along with tons of the chemical.

A former US Central Intelligence Agency operative, Robert Baer, told CNN that certain aspects of the blast suggest the combustion of military-grade material along with the ammonium nitrate. Indeed, video footage showed what looked like fireworks going off after the first smaller explosion.

But who would store fireworks with ammonium nitrate? Many believe those “fireworks” were small munition rounds. If so, they support the hypothesis that a munition cache might have exploded before detonating the ammonium nitrate.

And why keep so much ammonium nitrate in the first place, even if it had been inadvertently left behind? Lebanon’s farm sector is much more reliant on ammonium sulfate, because of the alkaline nature of the soil, than higher-nitrogen-content ammonium nitrate.

Trade figures show that in a typical year, Lebanon imports 25,000 metric tons of ammonium sulfate against barely 500 tons of ammonium nitrate. So the ammonium nitrate was of little use to farmers, yet repeated requests to dispose of it apparently went unanswered.

So many questions, so few answers – though the balance of blame appears to lie in tragic incompetence. It is best to leave that for now and await (possibly) more considered responses from the authorities.

Quite apart from the cause of Tuesday’s blast, however, the combination of ammonium nitrate and Lebanon brings to mind the militant group Hezbollah. Hezbollah is fond of ammonium nitrate – though not for farming. For example, in 2012 a Bulgarian court found Hezbollah guilty for an attack on a van carrying Israeli passengers at an airport in Burgas, in the country’s southeast. The attack was executed with an ammonium-nitrate bomb.

Also, according to the American Jewish Committee, authorities in Europe over the past few years have “uncovered safe houses and warehouses containing tremendous quantities of explosive materials” stored by Hezbollah. “In 2015 a warehouse storing 8.3 tons of ammonium nitrate was discovered in Cyprus, and six months later 3 tons of ammonium nitrate were discovered in four London hideouts.”

News reports last year suggested that Germany finally decided to place the group on its list of terrorist organizations after its intelligence service arrested Hezbollah operatives storing large amounts of ammonium nitrate in safe houses in the south of the country.

In March, the academic journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism published an article by Ioan Pop and Mitchell Silber, former intelligence officers with the New York Police Department, in which they claimed, “Hezbollah repeatedly and across different continents conducted … advanced logistical planning by establishing large stockpiles of harmless-looking first-aid ice packs filled with ammonium nitrate.”

Pop and Silber added that this “Hezbollah tradecraft for pre-positioning explosives around the world has been evidenced by discoveries in Thailand, Cyprus and the UK,” and that “the first time Hezbollah’s stockpiling of ammonium nitrate in first-aid ice packs was detected was in Thailand in 2012.”

Hezbollah does indeed appear to favor ammonium nitrate. But, with apologies to the rock group The Clash, Hezbollah don’t farm.

Returning to Warehouse 12, while incompetence rather than malice may be the reason for the blast, many questions still need to be answered.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

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Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.