Hezbollah Denies Any Role in Beirut Tragedy

Palestinian Red Crescent volunteers join in the search effort at the port, August 5 (PRCS)

Published Aug 7, 2020 2:58 PM by The Maritime Executive

As the response to the deadly blast at the Port of Beirut enters its third day, the death toll has risen to more than 150 people, with at least 5,000 more injured. More than 1,000 have been hospitalized - despite the extensive damage to the city's hospitals - and over 120 are in critical condition, Lebanese Health Minister Hamad Hassan said Friday. 

With the search and rescue effort well under way, an effort to determine the root cause of the blast - and to hold accountable those who may have set the stage - is beginning. 16 port leaders and other officials have been detained, and hundreds of citizens have launched protests in the streets to call for a "revolution" against the current government. In particular, all eyes are on the Port of Beirut, Lebanon's customs department, and any others who may have helped store 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate near the heart of downtown Beirut for the last six years.

Hezbollah's role at the port

The designated terrorist organization Hezbollah has a "dominant but murky role" at the Port of Beirut, as it does in many Lebanese institutions, according to Brookings Institution fellow Jeffrey Feltman. That role - which the Iran-backed group denies - has given rise to extensive speculation about the underlying cause of the disaster, especially the question of whether Hezbollah had a hand in maintaining the dangerous substance on site. 

One prominent but unconfirmed hypothesis suggests that the seized cargo was present at the port because Hezbollah had an interest in keeping it. In 2015 and again in 2019, Hezbollah was linked to concealed stockpiles of ammonium nitrate at sites in London and in southern Germany, respectively, noted the Jerusalem Post

In addition, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah previously described a "nuclear" attack strategy involving an explosion similar to the one that occurred in Beirut - except at the port of Haifa, Israel. “The [bomb] I’m talking about is when a couple of our missiles falling on ammonium [nitrate] warehouses in Haifa’s port, which will lead to the same effect as that of a nuclear bomb,” Nasrallah said in a 2016 speech. “When the missiles fall on the warehouses, in an area with a population of 800,000, tens of thousands will die.”

On Friday, Nasrallah denied accusations that Hezbollah had maintained an arms warehouse at the site. "We have nothing in the port: not an arms depot, nor a missile depot nor missiles nor rifles nor bombs nor bullets nor ammonium nitrate," he said in a televised speech. Instead, he described the presence of the ammonium nitrate as an act of negligence. “Even if a plane struck, or if it was an intentional act, if it turns out this nitrate had been at the port for years in this way, it means part of the case is absolutely negligence and corruption,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech. 

Search for a cause

The source of the main explosion is not in question: in addition to the extensive documentary and testimonial evidence of the presence of ammonium nitrate at the site, explosives experts have identified the chemical compound involved in the second (larger) blast with high certainty. The deep red-orange color of the smoke plume is characteristic of nitrogen dioxide, a decomposition product generated when ammonium nitrate detonates. (NO2 is also familiar to the public as the reddish-brown haze in smoggy air, commonly referred to as NOx.) 

Recently-released documents reviewed by CNN indicate that both the port and Lebanon's Ministry of Justice were well aware of the presence of a seized cargo of ammonium nitrate at the site, and that the port had petitioned a court to allow for the cargo to be sold or removed. Four times, the judges involved responded that they were not certain whether they had jurisdiction to make a decision in the case, according to CNN.

The particularly controversial question centers on whether the blast was set off by an intentional act. Witnesses involved in port operations prior to the explosion indicate that the proximate cause was a well-intentioned (if ill-conceived) decision to perform hot work on the door of the warehouse. In their account, the hot work initiated a fire and set off a cache of fireworks, which in turn caught the ammonium nitrate on fire and set off the second explosion.

Former port worker Yusuf Shehadi confirmed this account to The Guardian on Thurday. In his recollection, "30-40 nylon bags of fireworks" had been stored in the same warehouse as the cargo of ammonium nitrate for many years. Port workers and customs officials were well aware that both of these consignments were on site and potentially dangerous, and they had raised the issue multiple times, he said. “Every week, the customs people came and complained and so did the state security officers. The army kept telling them they had no other place to put this. Everyone wanted to be the boss, and no one wanted to make a real decision," Shehadi said. 

On Friday, Lebanese President Michel Aoun suggested that there could be two possible possible causes of the explosion - either an "external intervention" like a bomb or missile, or an industrial accident caused by negligence. Before Friday, the only public figure who had suggested that malicious intent was behind the blast was U.S. President Donald Trump: in comments shortly after the blast, the president said that "generals" believe "it was a bomb of some kind." Trump's comments were quickly and quietly walked back by top Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who said Wednesday that "most believe that it was an accident as reported."

The extreme nature of the incident has given rise to a wide variety of speculation and disinformation. Faked videos of the explosion - notably a crudely modified segment of CNN footage purporting to show a missile headed for the site, something not shown in any of a dozen eyewitness videos published immediately after the accident - are spreading on social media, along with a host of non-evidence-based conspiracy theories.