Aftermath of the Port of Beirut explosion on Aug. 4, 2020. Photo courtesy Voice of America.
This week’s horrific explosion in Beirut was most likely an accident in the sense that it was unplanned, but it was no random event. It is not likely that thousands of tons of highly explosive chemicals sat in the middle of Lebanon’s capital by chance.
Lebanese government officials promised a full investigation and stern justice for whoever was responsible for the blast, which likely killed hundreds while injuring thousands. The explosion also leveled the city’s port and much of the surrounding downtown. It reportedly felt like an earthquake on the island of Cyprus – 150 miles away.
But the promise of eventual truth and justice is almost certainly an empty one. Lebanon lacks the means, as well as the freedom of action, to deliver. Its barely functional government was already overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic collapse, and the endless regional and sectarian conflicts that have torn the country apart since the Lebanese civil war began in 1975. Beirut – a city that in the 1960s and early ’70s was often called the Paris of the Middle East – was already a shadow of its former self before Tuesday’s explosion turned a sizable swath of it into rubble.
Fire broke out in a warehouse at the port on Tuesday afternoon local time. Amid a pillar of smoke, residents could see small explosions that some news accounts described as “fireworks.” Then came the massive blast. A reported 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate blew up in a towering cloud of potentially toxic gas. Government officials said the substance had been stored at the site for six years, after it was originally impounded in 2013.
Ammonium nitrate is widely used as fertilizer. Lebanon has an agricultural sector, although it is hardly a breadbasket. It imports more than 80% of its food. Photos from the blast site show heavily damaged silos with huge piles of grain spilled on the ground. If that store of ammonium nitrate had been meant for farm use, it would have been used years ago.
Ammonium nitrate is also used for bombs – specifically, the kinds of car and truck bombs that are a terrorist specialty. The Oklahoma City bombers used a truckload of it to blow up a federal office complex in 1995. The Beirut warehouse where a shipload of it was stored became an accidental ammo dump – or perhaps a deliberate one. The small explosions that preceded the main blast were not fireworks, because nobody stores fireworks next to ammonium nitrate. But other explosives and detonation devices – those are the sorts of things that do get stored at ammo dumps.
The official line, as reported in The New York Times on Wednesday, is that a trouble-plagued, Russian-owned freighter made an unscheduled stop in Beirut while carrying the ammonium nitrate cargo to Africa. Lebanese authorities supposedly deemed the ship unfit to continue the journey. They impounded it and its cargo, along with the captain and several crew. (In an interview on Wednesday, the ship’s captain disputed this account, saying officials held the ship for a failure to pay port dues, not for any technical issues.) Eventually the crew was released. The cargo was moved from the ship to the quayside warehouse, and the seemingly abandoned ship remained in the port. Repeated requests to Lebanese courts for direction on how to dispose of the material supposedly went unaddressed, and so it sat in the warehouse.
Because ... nobody who owned all that ammonium nitrate was willing to come get it? Or because nobody else in the world wanted to buy it and take it off the hands of the Beirut port officials, who claimed they did not want to keep it?
That is the story the world is being offered. It is a convenient one for Lebanon, and many other countries, to accept. It makes the disaster in Beirut the result of mere incompetence, which is more or less expected, rather than of a brutal decision to turn Beirut’s citizens into human shields for what amounted to a terrorist weapon of mass destruction.
In 2011, the pro-Western Lebanese government of Saad Hariri was swept aside in the Arab Spring movement. Hariri’s father, Rafik Hariri, had died in a Syrian-linked car bombing in 2005. Saad Hariri’s government was replaced by a cabinet led by Najib Mikati, who had the backing of Iran’s local proxy and ally, Hezbollah.
The Arab Spring movement also ignited a rebellion against Syria’s strongman, Bashar Assad. Iran hastened to reinforce Assad, whose cooperation (together with Iranian influence in Iraq) gave Iran free access to Lebanon and a front line against Israel. But the Assad government initially reeled against the rebellion. By 2013, it resorted to repeated chemical weapons attacks against the opposition.
Americans remember what happened next. President Barack Obama declared a “red line” against Assad’s use of chemical weapons, but then backed down. Obama left it to Russia to supposedly ensure that Assad put away his chemical arsenal, essentially inviting Vladimir Putin to bring his good graces to the front lines of the Middle East. Russia and Iran soon forged a working arrangement to keep Assad in power.
But in 2014, the success of that arrangement was far from assured. Placing a huge pile of car-bomb material in Lebanon would have had a lot of strategic appeal. It could be used against Lebanese opponents, as had been done against Rafik Hariri in 2005. It could be brought overland to Syria, in case the opposition to Assad gained a foothold in its urban centers, or if the Americans intervened to carry out Obama’s threat (before it turned out to be empty). Or the material could be carried still farther back to Iraq, again for use against civilian targets or opponents of the Iranians.
Still, a Russian ship carrying huge quantities of explosives into Hezbollah’s primary port would have caught the attention of the Americans and the Israelis. Where would be the best possible place to keep it? How about in the middle of Lebanon’s capital city, a place where the Israelis would not dare attack it, since doing so would be so beyond the pale of international acceptance? Even the United States would have been forced to reconsider its relationship with an ally that would stoop so low in peacetime.
Sure, maybe it was an accident that this huge pile of ammonium nitrate ended up in the heart of Beirut, sitting there unmoved and unclaimed for six years, until some random event triggered a conflagration. It doesn’t make any sense, but plausible deniability doesn’t have to be logical – it only has to be plausible.
Or maybe that pile of ammonium nitrate sat at the port because that was where the parties who actually controlled it wanted it to be. The fact that it ultimately blew up is, probably, an accident. But even so, the circumstances that led to this event don’t look random at all.