Russian rescue teams search for survivors at Beirut Port on August 7, 2020, three days after a massive blast there shook the Lebanese capital. Photo: Joseph Eid / AFP

BEIRUT – The explosion that rocked the Lebanese capital on Tuesday and left an earthquake of devastation in its wake was not only due to negligence and corruption, but may have been triggered by an “attack,” Lebanese President Michel Aoun said Friday.

“There are two possibilities for what happened. Either it was a result of negligence, or external interference by a missile or a bomb,” said Aoun in a statement posted to Twitter.

It was the first acknowledgement of the possibility of an attack by a relevant official since US President Donald Trump spoke bluntly following intelligence briefings on Tuesday, and it corroborates accounts gleaned from interviews with multiple Lebanese and American defense and security sources since the blast.

The Christian Lebanese leader, who has maintained a pact with Hezbollah since 2006, rejected calls for an international probe into the incident. “If we cannot rule ourselves, then no one can rule us,” he said.

US President Donald Trump three days prior suggested the incident was a deliberate attack.

“Let me begin by sending America’s deepest sympathies to the people of Lebanon, where reports indicate that many, many people were killed, hundreds more were very badly wounded in a large explosion in Beirut,” Trump told reporters somberly, roughly six hours after the blasts hit Beirut.

“It looks like a terrible attack,” he said.

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The US leader had received his intelligence briefing at 2 pm. Asked by a reporter to clarify his conclusion, Trump said: “I’ve met with some of our great generals … This was not some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of event.”

He added, “They seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind, yes.”

Averting war

The bombshell assessment came against the backdrop of a spate of confrontations between Israel and Hezbollah, and a string of fires and explosions at sensitive military sites in Iran, sending Trump’s cabinet and the concerned parties into damage control mode.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used their platforms to dilute Trump’s conclusion, as did Trump himself.

The alternative, Lebanese security sources said, would be the logical attribution to Israel, forcing Hezbollah into an equivalent response, which would trigger a war of catastrophic proportions.

“If it was an Israeli attack, then this will not be revealed because it implicates both sides in a war they don’t want,” a senior Lebanese source close to Hezbollah told Asia Times on condition of anonymity.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in a speech on Friday said only an investigation would reveal the cause of the catastrophe and insisted his group had no military presence in the port.

Israel days earlier moved to deny any involvement in the human catastrophe, with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi telling Israeli N12 television the explosion was most likely an accident.

President Aoun stated Friday that Lebanon would be conducting its own investigation and that no one would be arrested until it was complete. An international probe, sought by his own Justice Minister and French President Emmanuel Macron, would obscure the truth, Aoun claimed. Many believe the exact opposite will be true.

Valarie Fakhoury, a grandmother with her daughter and granddaughter, stand outside the emergency ward of a hospital in the Hamra district of central Beirut following a huge explosion that rocked the Lebanese capital on August 4, 2020. Photo; Janine Haidar / AFP

What lies beneath

In Lebanon, “there is nothing happening in sensitive places – the airport, frontiers, seaport – that is not related to the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel,” a former high-ranking Lebanese military-intelligence source told Asia Times.

The explosion, he assessed, was no accident. And Trump, he said, is evidently incapable of keeping a secret.

Lebanon’s top security officials have told the public a 2,750-tonne store of ammonium nitrate, confiscated and held under murky circumstances by Port of Beirut Customs in 2013, was the source of the final, apocalyptic blast.

Lebanon’s Customs chief Badri Daher, a notorious figure long dogged by accusations of corruption, has said a depot of fireworks was being stored near the deadly stockpile, and may have caused the initial explosion.

“Improper storage can create an explosive hazard that can be initiated either naturally or intentionally,” Al Johnson, a veteran US Army explosive ordnance disposal expert, told Asia Times.

An aerial view shows the massive damage at Beirut port’s grain silos and the area around it on Wednesday, one day after a massive explosion hit the area in the heart of the Lebanese capital. Photo: AFP

Yet the fireworks scenario is being met with intense skepticism, given the obvious dangers such a close storage arrangement would present.

“I do not believe there was that amount of ammonium nitrate at the port of Beirut, nor that there was a fireworks depot,” explosives expert Danilo Coppe told Italian daily Corriere.

“When ammonium nitrate detonates, it generates an unmistakable yellow cloud. Instead, from the videos of the explosion, in addition to the white sphere that can be seen expanding – which is condensation of the sea air – you can clearly see a brick orange column tending to bright red, typical of lithium participation. Lithium-metal is a propellant for military missiles, so I think there were armaments there.”

“It seems like an explosion of an armament warehouse,” said Coppe.

A US military explosives expert who has worked closely with the Lebanese army told Asia Times on condition of anonymity that according to his contacts among the Lebanese armed forces, the explosion was an “act of sabotage” against the hangar, which was holding not only ammonium nitrate, but also short-range missiles, allegedly impounded.

The official explanation is that the now infamous Hangar No. 12 was used as a catch-all for dangerous and illicit items confiscated by Customs authorities. But the public has not yet been given a credible explanation for why ammonium nitrate would have been placed next to other hazardous items.

The bizarre arrangement has raised suspicions the ammonium nitrate may have even served as a shield for arms underneath.

“I’ve spoken to several [Lebanese former and current] military people that all agreed this was an arms depot exploding after the first strike, and that the ammonium nitrate would not ignite without a fuse, in this case an explosion,” said Riad Kahwaji, head of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

The Lebanese army does not store arms or ammunition in the port.

“It all moves immediately to the barracks. No explosive material permitted to stay at the ports,” said Kahwaji. “If it was not the army, who else has arms depots?”

Wounded people outside a hospital after an explosion in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. Photo: AFP/Ibrahim Amro

Haifa to Beirut

Hezbollah leader Nasrallah, in a televised address on Friday, said his party had no arms stores in the port and nothing to do with the contents of Hangar 12.

“Hezbollah maybe knows Haifa port better than Beirut port,” he said.

Nasrallah in 2016 said his Shiite group’s missiles were capable of hitting a secret ammonia store at the northern Israeli port and creating the equivalent of a nuclear weapon, something he said created a “balance of terror,” essentially mutually-assured destruction.

Instead, it would be Beirut Port’s own hidden stores that would maim its own people.

The near-total destruction of Beirut Port also comes one year after Israeli UN Ambassador Danny Danon accused Lebanese authorities of allowing the facility to become “Hezbollah’s port.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018 accused Hezbollah of “using the innocent people of Beirut as human shields” in its choices of military sites. “Israel will not let you get away with it,” he said.

A number of Lebanese defense analysts believe Israel did likely carry out the attack, but did not intend for damage of this magnitude.

“The official word, is this was an accident,” said Kahwaji. “Everyone was surprised by the magnitude of the explosion, including the Israelis themselves, and hence they don’t want to take responsibility. Hezbollah won’t say because they don’t want to admit having weapons in the city.”

Such a finding would implicate every Lebanese government of the past six years, already under fierce scrutiny for clear neglect. And it would suggest that Hezbollah had put the constituents of their Christian allies in East Beirut in harm’s way.

A picture shows a blown-up ship which was thrown on the land at Beirut port on August 7, 2020, three days after a massive blast there shook the Lebanese capital. Photo: AFP

Shell-shock is turning to outrage in Beirut, as the Lebanese public digests the thought that a three kiloton stock of ammonium nitrate, a de facto bomb, had been sitting in the midst of their capital for the past six years.

Lebanese sectarian political factions now appear to be in damage control mode, deflecting responsibility for more than 150 dead, thousands wounded, and a quarter million made homeless.

Beirut Bar Association chief Melhem Khalaf, in the wake of the explosion, said he would launch a lawsuit on behalf of the victims for charges of wrongful death, endangerment, and misuse of public funds. The suit, he vowed, would target all those found responsible.

At the top of the list for many is Customs chief Badri Daher, who oversaw the stock of ammonium nitrate for the past six years and legal experts say could have disposed of it at any time. Yet he is only the tip of the iceberg, and part of a web of neglected duties.

“It is unacceptable that responsibility be diluted,” Khalaf said.

Wednesday through Friday were national days of mourning. On Saturday, Lebanese will take to the streets once again, this time, thousands of them newly robbed of friends, family, home and livelihood.

Alison Tahmizian Meuse

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