Demonstrators clash with Lebanese riot police during a protest against government at the Martyrs' Square after the deadly explosion at the Port of Beirut led to massive blasts on 4th August in Beirut, Lebanon on August 08, 2020. Demonstrators shouted slogans against Lebanese President Michel Aoun and other officials, the sectarian-based regime, preserve the existence of political groups who shared the administration for many years. Photo: AFP via Anadolu/Houssam Shbaro

Lebanese President Michael Aoun has rejected any international probe into the Beirut explosion that has so far claimed 154 lives, injured hundreds of others and destroyed the dwellings of between 200,000 and 300,000 people. 

Despite growing protests in Lebanon, the authorities are blocking any serious investigation and don’t appear to be trying to do any on their own. Meanwhile, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah categorically denied that Hezbollah was storing any arms in Beirut’s port and has warned against any attempt to blame his group for the disaster. 

The Beirut Port Manager and Customs Chief have both been arrested, though it isn’t clear they are at fault. At least 16 others have been arrested so far. What we do know is that there were multiple warnings before the devastating blast.

In 2018, the Israeli military (IDF) publicly identified at least three locations stretching the short distance from Beirut’s docks to the outskirts of nearby Beirut airport where Hezbollah was reputedly building precision-guided missiles. The IDF published overhead photos of the locations and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking to the United Nations on December 17, 2018, raised alarm about the Hezbollah missile program.

We also know that in 2015 Israel tipped off the British that Hezbollah had moved three tons of ammonium nitrate into Britain.  In May this year, it was revealed on Channel 12 News in Israel that “[The] Mossad reportedly gave Germany information about warehouses in the south of the country where Hezbollah stashed hundreds of kilograms of ammonium nitrate, a material used to make explosives.”

That information, along with other details about Hezbollah’s operations in Germany led the German government to finally ban Hezbollah and moved to arrest Hezbollah operatives in Germany.

An image grab taken from Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV on March 20, 2020, shows Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanon’s powerful Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah, delivering an address from an undisclosed location in Lebanon. Photo: AFP

According to the Times of Israel, we also know that “In a February 16, 2016, speech, aired on Al-Manar TV [based in Lebanon], Hassan Nasrallah threatened the Israeli ammonia storage facilities in Haifa. He quoted an Israeli expert saying that a missile attack on the ammonia tanks would have the impact of a nuclear bomb.”

One of the principal reasons Israel is greatly concerned that Hezbollah is acquiring precision-guided rockets from Iran is their ability to carry out threats such as Nasrallah’s focused on Haifa’s ammonium storage and other sensitive facilities within such rockets’ reach.

Ammonium nitrate has previously been used in large scale bombings.  In the United States in 1995 the Murrah Federal Building was destroyed by a bomb concealed in a Ryder Rental Truck.  That bomb consisted of Tovex (a dynamite substitute used in mining), liquid nitromethane (a mixture of gasoline and nitrous oxide) and 41 50-pound bags of fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate. 

In Ryongchŏn North Korea in 2004 a train exploded while crossing through the station killing at least 160 people and injuring more than 1,300 others. The train was loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer and was also said to be carrying propane gas that was donated by China to North Korea. 

Some say the train explosion was timed to coincide with the passage of another train through Ryongchŏn carrying then North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.  But a more credible explanation was that the blast was designed to kill Syrian nuclear scientists on the train or to destroy supplies of weapons-grade uranium they were carrying.

The Syrians were known to be collaborating with North Korea on atomic weapons. Three years later, Israel launched an operation to destroy a nuclear reactor being secretly built in Syria with the aid of North Korea and Iran. That reactor followed the same plan as North Korea’s Yongbyon, a  graphite reactor capable of making plutonium.

There have been many other disasters where ammonium nitrate is involved. The worst was probably on April 16, 1947 when a cargo ship in Galveston bay harbor, the Grandcamp, carrying 2,600 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded, killing 580 and setting off another nearby vessel that also contained ammonium nitrate and sulfur that also exploded.

In the same year in Brest, France, a Norwegian cargo ship Ocean Liberty was loaded with 3,309 tons of ammonium nitrate and various flammable products when it caught fire.  The ship was towed out of the harbor but still exploded, killing 29.

An aerial view shows the massive damage done to Beirut port’s grain silos (C) and the area around it on August 5, 2020, one day after a mega-blast tore through the harbor in the heart of the Lebanese capital. Photo: AFP

We know that in Beirut there were a number of warnings about the ammonium nitrate bags stored in a shoddy warehouse on the docks. But, despite calls to move the material to a safer and more secure location, Beirut authorities did not act. 

No one has been able to explain why.  We don’t know if Hezbollah, which has de facto influence if not actual control over the Beirut port and its facilities, and now controls Lebanon’s government, wasn’t trying to get control of the seized cargo or already controlled the stored material stored in the decrepit warehouse.

There is still a considerable lack of clarity on what touched off the massive explosion.  Initially, the Lebanese government said the explosion was caused by a nearby firecracker factory, but none has been identified.  There also is a claim that some fireworks were stored in the same warehouse as the ammonium nitrate, but this is not confirmed.

A fire or another explosive material is needed to set off ammonium nitrate. In all the videos of the Beirut catastrophe, there is a large primary first explosion and after a few seconds a huge secondary explosion.  The primary explosion has a dark reddish color and resembles oxidized and exploding rocket fuel. 

The videos show that the reddish explosion happens behind the warehouse.  This could have been one of the rocket assembly factories reputedly run by Hezbollah and identified by the Israeli military.  The second explosion is clearly the detonation of the ammonium nitrate in the portside warehouse. That explosion has no color and no fire.

The first blast cannot readily be explained by firecrackers.  Moreover, its location was different from the second blast of the ammonium nitrate. We do know that the blasts resulted in an explosion that measured between 2.5 and 3 kilotons (Hiroshima was about 15 kilotons.)  The seismic blast measured 3.3 on the Richter scale for earthquakes.

We don’t know what caused the first explosion. If it was a Hezbollah rocket plant then was it a workplace accident or sabotage? Assuming Hezbollah’s precision-guided rockets use solid fuel, mixing the fuel requires special sparkless machines and great care in casting the resulting slurry for the missiles.

If there is any debris left in the area, some of the special rocket machinery may have survived the blast and could help to confirm if the first blast came from a Hezbollah facility.

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

Beyond the explosion itself the story of the ship, the MV Rhosus that carried the cargo, is complex. Was the ship supposed to deliver its cargo to Mozambique?  Did it stop in Beirut because it had engine problems? 

Was it arriving in Beirut to either pick up or deliver other cargo?  Why would a ship used only once by its Cyprus-based Russian owner and scheduled to be scrapped make a run from Batumi, Georgia to Lebanon or Mozambique? Was the ammonium nitrate cargo a cover for the delivery of other sensitive goods? 

The one thing we do know is that the MV Rhosus is sunk on its side, still tethered to the dock. There remain far too many unanswered questions and, it seems, little likelihood we will get any answers in future.