A Lebanese army soldier and a man carry away an injured man at a hospital in the aftermath of an explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. Photo: Ibrahim Amro / AFP

Hezbollah is believed to have imported up to 670 tonnes of tonnes of ammonium nitrate – the material blamed for the Beirut Port explosion – to Lebanon between 2013 and 2014, according to German daily Die Welt.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, in the wake of the August 4 explosion, denied his group has had any involvement in the port. President Michel Aoun, responding to allegations his ally was storing weapons in the vicinity of the ammonium nitrate, told Italian daily Corriere della Sera on Tuesday it was “impossible” Hezbollah was keeping arms at the port.

A Lebanese probe is tasked with examining why ammonium nitrate sat at the port for six years and whether the explosion was accidental or set off by “external interference.”

The conservative Die Welt (WELT), one of Germany’s most prominent newspapers, said it was made privy to information obtained by “Western intelligence,” including purported documentation of the alleged transactions.

“According to information from Western intelligence agencies that is available to WELT, Hezbollah in Lebanon received large deliveries of ammonium nitrate, which are closely related to the material detonated in Beirut,” the paper said late Wednesday.

The first transaction, WELT said, occurred on July 16, 2013, for a 270-tonne shipment of ammonium nitrate, sent from Iran to Lebanon at a stated cost of 179,399 euros.

A second payment for the same quantity of ammonium nitrate was made in October 23 of that year, this time at a price of 140,693 euros.

The second shipment, WELT reported, is believed to have been transported in flexible bulk containers by plane, likely on private Iranian airlines considered fronts for the Revolutionary Guard. One of those, Mahan Air, was last year banned from landing in Germany over alleged activities on behalf of the Revolutionary Guard.

Then on April 4, 2014, a third transaction was charged for one billion Iranian rials (61,438 euros). While the amount of ammonium nitrate received was unclear, the paper estimated it to be between 90 and 130 tonnes given the previous charges, for a total of up to 670 tonnes.

The first and third shipments, the paper said, were believed to have arrived by land from Syria or by sea.

“These facts do not directly indicate Hezbollah as the recipient of this material. But intelligence suggests that Hezbollah was stocking large amounts of ammonium nitrate at precisely that time,” said WELT.

Port in focus

The Lebanese government has attributed the massive explosion on August 4 to a still-unexplained store of up to 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate held under secretive conditions in the port for more than six years.

The notoriously weaponizeable fertilizer arrived to Beirut via the Rhosus, a Moldovan-flagged vessel, in late 2013. The Moldovan flag is widely considered a flag of convenience and has been blacklisted by Paris.

Lebanese port customs months later in 2014 would seize the ammonium nitrate under questionable circumstances, and instead of disposing of it, transport it to a warehouse inside the port where it was kept illegally.

In another eyebrow-raising revelation, Beirut was not even the first port of call which the Rhosus made to Lebanon, according to data uncovered by veteran vessel tracker Noam Raydan.

“Vessel tracking data from FleetMon and MarineTraffic show that the ship was in Lebanon’s southern port of Sidon in the summer of 2013, a few months before it sailed to Beirut,” Raydan reported Monday for Forbes.

The visit to the low-profile port of Sidon, she notes, “shows that the ship had prior and separate business in the country, before making its way to the Lebanese capital in November 2013.”

Badri Daher, the longtime director of Port Customs who was appointed by Aoun as director-general of customs for the country in March 2017, was formally arrested on Monday – two weeks after the explosion.

The ammonium nitrate stock was under his purview for six years.

Reached by phone by Asia Times on Wednesday, Lebanese Customs refused to make any spokesperson available or answer questions on its workings. Emails to Lebanese Customs since the explosion have gone unanswered.

Quds connection

While the circumstances surrounding the arrival of ammonium nitrate arrival to Lebanon remains murky, there exists an overlap between the arrival of the Rhosus to the ports of Sidon (summer 2013) and Beirut (late 2013-mid-2014), and the time frame during which the Iran-Lebanon transactions for the supply of ammonium nitrate viewed by Die Welt (July 2013-April 2014) occurred.

WELT said it was able to view the purported invoicing documents for the deliveries, though these did not include the names of the men believed to have facilitated the shipments.

On the Iranian side, the deliveries are said to have been organized by the logistics department of the Quds Force. Behnam Shahriyari, who is under US sanctions and believed to serve as deputy logistics chief for the Quds Force, appears as the head of the Iranian transport company Liner Transport Kish, which “is believed” to have handled the ammonium nitrate delivery.

On the Lebanese side, the man WELT said was believed responsible for receiving the shipment was Mohammad Qasir, under US sanctions since May 2018 for allegedly acting as a critical financial conduit between the Quds Force and Hezbollah.

Ammonium nitrate, it should be noted, is also a common fertilizer. Lebanon has approximately 360,000 hectares of arable land, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. According to statistics compiled by TheGlobalEconomy.com, Lebanon in 2016 used 330.9 kg of fertilizer (1/3 tonne) per hectare of arable land.

While it is unlikely Lebanon is maximizing the use of its arable land, due to the more lucrative practice of renting farmland to Syrian refugee settlements, in 2013 and 2014 it imported between $55 and $57 million worth of fertilizer per year, according to Trading Economics. These were animal-based and plant-based, as well as mineral and chemical.

In the wake of the Beirut port explosion, there have been no claims the ammonium nitrate was being stored for agricultural purposes.

The purpose of the ammonium nitrate shipments flagged by Die Welt remains unclear.

But both the August 4 explosion, and now the Die Welt report, have brought renewed scrutiny to a number of incidents over recent years in which Hezbollah operatives were caught with ammonium nitrate in Europe.

In 2015, Cypriot authorities arrested Hussein Bassam Abdallah, a dual Lebanese-Canadian citizen, with 8.2 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in his possession. He later confessed to membership of a terrorist organization, which the local press identified as Hezbollah.

In June 2019, the UK Telegraph reported that “Iran-linked terrorists” were caught storing ammonium nitrate outside London. The UK blacklisted Hezbollah as an entire entity in January.

Israeli Channel 12 last year reported that Mossad tipped off German intelligence that Hezbollah had stored ammonium nitrate in warehouses in southern Germany. Germany, which formerly distinguished between Hezbollah’s political party and military wing, in April designated the entire movement as a terrorist organization.

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Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.