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Lebanon: What happened?

Part I of a series reviewing the facts of what we know has happened and an analysis of the horrific catastrophe in Beirut on Aug. 4 itself. Part II will focus on the ramifications.

A view of damaged buildings one day after multiple explosions in Beirut, Aug. 5, 2020. Photo by Zaatari Lebanon/Flash90.
A view of damaged buildings one day after multiple explosions in Beirut, Aug. 5, 2020. Photo by Zaatari Lebanon/Flash90.
David Wurmser. Courtesy.
David Wurmser
David Wurmser, Ph.D., an American foreign-policy specialist, is a Fellow at the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy. He served as Middle East adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney.

A few minutes after 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 4, a fire broke out in Hangar 9 of Beirut’s port. Videos from the first moments afterwards show black smoke, indicative of a grease or other material fire. A few minutes later, a second, fairly large explosion (assuming there was a small explosion that caused the first fire) expanded the blast area into Hangar 12 and set the stage for the third and final explosion, which occurred about 20 minutes after the first and about 30 seconds after the second.

What we know about the blasts

We have no idea what caused the first fire or blast, if there even was a first blast; none of the videos so far provided captured those first few seconds. But the remaining smoke was moderate and blackish, consistent with an industrial fire. It appears some small munitions, or some claim fireworks, began erupting soon after, causing a whitish-grey smoke. One video, apparently taken from an adjacent building, shows crackling and popping occurring before a much larger second blast. This could be fireworks, as the government has claimed.

The second explosion was much more significant and produced thick whitish-gray “dirty” smoke, consistent with some high explosives and even rocket fuel. Several witnesses of the second explosion insisted at first they heard airplane engines, but closer examination by analysis of several videos and the commentary by eyewitnesses themselves ultimately place the source of that roaring sound within the fire, further suggesting that rocket engines were being set off rather than planes flying overhead.

Smaller continuing explosions persisted, with white flashes seen in and above the building. While fireworks could still not be ruled out, after the second explosion, the thick dirty grey smoke, whooshing airplane-type sound rather than predominant whistling, the absence of a spectacular airborne display of streamers and sparkling explosions spraying in every direction as would be consistent with firework explosions (since the roof had already been blown off the building at that time) all seem to suggest rockets, mortars and missiles of some sort rather than fireworks igniting.

About 20 seconds after the second blast, the escalating fire dramatically ramped up, as did the resulting pace of white flashes in and above the building, which seems to be consistent with small-caliber explosives, such as mortars and rockets.

In short, something much more explosive, which produces white-grey dirty smoke and a sound like a roaring aircraft engine, produced the second explosion, of which we know nothing else at this point since the government is sticking closely to the “fireworks” explanation. That second explosion seemed to set in motion what eventually triggered the final and third explosion. In fact, it is clear that the Lebanese government is determined to not have the cause of this second explosion known or discussed.

About 28 seconds after the second blast, during which the flames and white flashes intensified, more “humming” and a roaring crescendo can be heard in the videos, suggesting missile engines roaring, and then a final round of white-flash explosions popping off, followed suddenly by a massive eruption—the third and final explosion. Still-frame photos of the exact moment of the massive explosion show that the entire warehouse—this time Hangar 12—simultaneously and uniformly detonated.

The magnitude of the blast was great enough, and the ambient humidity high enough, to produce a perfect Wilson cloud. While some have said it might be a fuel-air blast, the condensation halo vaporized instantly, as is consistent with a Wilson cloud rather than fuel-air explosion. Also, the cloud did not have the initial yellow flash consistent with a fuel-air blast. It was, in fact, a pressure wave according to physicists—not a shock wave such as a fuel-air bomb would produce—thankfully, since the death toll would have been astronomically higher had it been a shock wave.

Later analysis of the blast effects indicated that it was equivalent to a 1.1 kiloton explosion—comparable to a small tactical nuclear blast, about one-11th the size of the Hiroshima 12 to 15 kiloton nuclear blast.

Ahead of the Wilson cloud was a massive pressure wave spreading throughout the city, and rising behind the Wilson cloud is a broad and towering column of thick, reddish-brown smoke, generally indicative of a concentrated and high-quality bomb-grade ammonium nitrate explosion. Fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate tends to explode with more blackish, oily smoke.

The Lebanese government claims that more than 2,700 tons of ammonium phosphate were stored in Hangar 12, confiscated from a Moldovan-flagged cargo vessel, the Rhosus, in 2013. A 1.1 kiloton blast would be almost exactly equivalent to what 2,700 tons (2.7 kilotons) of ammonium nitrate would produce, assuming that it was of military and not fertilizer grade (the conversion rate to TNT of the highest-grade ammonium nitrate is 0.4 percent). Nitropril, which was seen to be marked on some of the bags in images that have since appeared, is the densely porous, prilled (granularized) grade of ammonium nitrate used for the explosive version, not fertilizer. So this is also consistent with bomb-grade ammonium nitrate being the cause of the last, massive blast.

It must be noted though that ammonium nitrate cannot combust by itself. Indeed, the markings on ammonium nitrate containers in the United States bear the following safety label: “May explode under confinement and high temperature, but not readily detonated. May explode due to nearby detonations.” And indeed, Lebanon’s interior minister, Mohammad Fahmi, also noted this on Aug. 6. This is why getting to the bottom of the second explosion is so critical, and why it is so important to press the Lebanese government on producing more information on the materials that caused this second explosion, which were likely munitions and missiles. Without it, there would never have been a catastrophe.

As a final note, there have been commentators claiming that the final blast looks more like a fuel-air blast from a shaped explosive charge, namely HMX (Octagen, or C4H8N8O8) missile fuel that accidentally detonated. The survival of the grain silos is raised as a sign that the charge which exploded was shaped upward—again consistent with a warhead pointed toward the sky. The smoke, however, of the third explosion was a dark reddish-rust color typical of an ammonium nitrate explosion, and the vast layer of dust left on everything in the area is the typical residue of ammonium nitrate.

About the grain elevator: it survived on the far side, but not the side facing the explosion. It is quite possible that the grain in the silos absorbed the kinetic energy of the blast, much like sand or water do. Still, this alternative explanation cannot be ruled out, nor could it be ruled out—indeed it is likely—that such high explosive material, used for rocket fuel or extremely high-intensity explosions, was the source of the second blast (which appears to have been in Hangar 9, and was whiter and quite substantial in its own right—certainly consistent with a missile blowing up), and was the ongoing source of the escalating fire and roaring, and the trigger for the third, massive explosion.

The final blast destroyed central Beirut, damaged buildings 10 miles away and sent pressure waves 20 miles away to the surrounding Lebanese mountains. It was heard in northern Israel, and even clearly in Cyprus, 125 miles away. Hundreds were killed, several thousand wounded and 300,000 left homeless as a result of the blast.

Some effects of the blast are only beginning. Some 80 percent of Lebanon’s grain supply (Lebanon’s strategic reserve) was incinerated, and the port through which most of Lebanon’s imported food arrived has been rendered dysfunctional. Lebanon relied on imported food for 90 percent of its needs, so this is a disaster that yet will unfold. Beirut port is the entry point for 70 percent of all imports. So Lebanon faces a grave logistical challenge—few operating docks—in finding a structure to bring in seaborne loads of goods and foodstuffs.

Hangars 9 and 12

Regarding hangars 9 and 12, Lebanese are universal in their belief that Hezbollah rules the critical areas of the port as a government within a government. As head of the program on studying terrorism in Israel’s Herzliya Center, Mordechai Kedar has noted that there are many videos of Hezbollah officials bragging about their “Fatima Gate,” a nickname for their independent, clandestine port structure in Beirut completely out of the control and visibility of the Lebanese government. In those videos, it is noteworthy that Hezbollah bragged that “the Fatima Gate” in Beirut port is where they can come and go at will, import and export freely, and smuggle unharassed, not only without interference by customs authorities but often without their knowledge.

Kedar believes that the Hangar 9 and 12 structures are the noted “Fatima Gate.” They are closest to the water—meaning, they are the prime warehouses for unloading ships without being detected by satellite or aerial reconnaissance and are very close to the exit of the port as well. Lebanese port workers themselves regarded Hangar 12 as an off-limits Hezbollah zone.

These two warehouses, being the closest to the waterline, were clearly the most sought-after structures for rapid movement and transfer, not long-term storage. Indeed, the port authority asked that the ammonium nitrate be removed to more distant storage sheds, but those requests were met with silence.

The ship

The Lebanese government, which has been diligent and fast in releasing information that builds its narrative (outlined below), has said nothing of the provenance of the ostensible fireworks and has provided no other information in connection with the first blast/fire and the second blast. It has focused exclusively on the final blast—and with determination has suppressed discussion of anything else—leaving us no information to analyze regarding everything that preceded the final blast.

The official version is that a ship, the Moldovan-flagged Rhosus, was sailing in 2013 from the Crimea to Mozambique to deliver fertilizer or explosives for mining. The ship encountered mechanical difficulties—although some conflicting reports said it lacked the funds to pay the Suez Canal fees—and had to take to port in Beirut. The Lebanese government saw the papers were not in order and confiscated the ship. The owner of the ship, the Cyprus-based Russian oligarch Igor Grechushkin, abandoned the ship and the cargo and left the crew stranded. Ship crews are abandoned disturbingly often, but much less so with cargoes.

The ammonium nitrate on the ship was offloaded and placed in Hangar 12. After seven years of legal wrangling and bureaucratic back and forth, the cargo remained stored in Hangar 12, until it exploded on Tuesday. The crew, which was stranded on the ship for several months, was eventually flown home.

The abandoned ship was moved 1,000 feet up the pier in 2015, where it sank in 2018 after springing a leak, The New York Times reported on Friday.

What we know about the ship is the official Lebanese government version, which has not been independently verified. And indeed, it took only a day or two before Lebanese journalists began accessing records and former officials, and began uncovering additional information of interest, although a good bit of it is impossible to independently verify. The popular and respected Lebanese journalist Marcel Ghanem, on his MTV show, Sar el-Waet, on Aug. 6 interviewed a retired prominent, perhaps chief, Beirut port inspector, who had been involved in the whole Rhosus affair since the beginning and had been the one to debrief its crew. His tale was riveting, but again, is in need of independent verification.

Notably, the interview could cost the former inspector his life, so it is rather surprising that he openly recounted what he did. He claims he was the inspector who personally interviewed the ship captain, and the story he tells is shocking and worth summarizing here:

• The ship’s captain, Boris Prokoshev, said the ship was not seaworthy, and nor was he. The inspector noted the captain was consistently drunk. But both the captain and the inspector understood that this was why both this ship and captain were chosen; no respectable ship owner or captain would have undertaken this mission. The whole crew was made up of desperadoes, essentially. In short, there was something untoward about the very nature of the shipment from the start.

• When the ship passed the Bosphorus Strait, the Turkish transit authorities stopped it because they worried the ship was not seaworthy. Upon boarding, they inspected and saw the shipment, at which point they moved to seize it to prevent Bosphorus passage as a grave hazard. The head of Bosphorus maritime transit then received a phone call from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s officer, saying that Erdoğan personally requested it be released and allowed Bosphorus passage. The head of Bosphorus transit was so upset by this—fearing it could be a terror ship that could even be used in Istanbul—that he tweeted his disapproval as a self-protective maneuver.

• The ship, being unseaworthy, used its “SoS” status as cover and made straight for Beirut, not Cyprus which was closer, where its owner was and where the ship had previously been flagged (before Moldova). Once in Beirut, the official story was established that the ship could not continue, and the cargo was essentially bought out by unknown actors. That is why the ship owner—an oligarch who did not build his reputation on being a pushover—never launched a court challenge over the confiscation of the ammonium nitrate by the Beirut port.

• The Beirut port inspector had his team launch a quiet investigation as to where the money came from for the purchase. They concluded it led back to Iran.

• Also, receiving no cooperation from the government regarding the details of the ammonium nitrate, they brought in a chemist to see what grade of ammonium nitrate they were dealing with. The tests showed it was the highest possible grade; not the sort used in fertilizer, and not even a common level of quality for mining explosives.

• They, the port authority and others started getting ever more nervous about this, suspecting foul play, and many times asked for further information about the shipment, not only in terms of asking it to be removed but also information about it. Their letters and queries were always met with cold silence.

In short, the Lebanese government is focused exclusively on ammonium nitrate, completely ignoring the causes and sources (likely munitions and missile fuel) of the second explosion, which was the essential component in turning a small accident into a vast human tragedy. To reinforce its narrative, it has taken the odd tale of an unseaworthy ship crewed by derelicts and spun a tale of incompetence, not nefarious behavior, as the only story worth contemplating. A story which, coincidentally, lays the bulk of the blame on the previous government under Saad Hariri.

Part 2: Lebanon

Although the first hour or so after the blast produced wild stories—including the Israeli Frogmen theory—both the Lebanese government and Hezbollah, both of which are beholden to Syria and Iran, very quickly and decisively asserted there was no Israeli involvement in the blast.

The Lebanese government reaction

A careful study of all the available videos and freeze-frames confirms the Lebanese government account of the final blast, although there is a loud silence about what preceded it. In addition to the escalating behavior of the fires and explosions at the scene clearly emanating from their internal dynamics, there are also no external objects entering the immediate site. There is no video out there of what caused the very first fire or explosion, which was relatively minor. By early evening, less than an hour after the explosions, even al-Mayedin media, the mouthpiece of Hezbollah, made clear there was no Israeli attack.

Instead, the government built a very different narrative, focusing on the climate of prevailing criminal negligence. To carry through this narrative, it has ordered anyone possibly connected to be placed under house arrest. It also opened a commission of inquiry on Aug. 5 to determine the cause of and culpability in this disaster.

The Lebanese government insists on limiting the parameters of public discussion to the scandal of corruption and incompetence over the last seven years by previous governments regarding the nature and storage of ammonium nitrate.

It is suppressing discussion, unsuccessfully, of all other inquiry into the ammonium-nitrate ownership, nature or storage as irrelevant, as it is regarding any mention of the preceding fires and explosions, what was stored there that caused those preceding fires and explosions, and whose cargo it was. So for the Lebanese government, the ship and government incompetence is the entire story.

This is perhaps not entirely coincidental; this is the most self-protecting narrative. The international investigation into the 2005 mass-bomb murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was set to issue its final report this weekend, and it has already revealed that the Syrian government and Hezbollah—as well as Iran—were clearly to blame. Blaming this new calamity—the worst to have ever befallen the Lebanese people—on incompetence and corruption lays the blame on the government for four of the seven years of the cargo saga—the government of Rafiq Hariri’s son, Prime Minister Saad Hariri. The government could have reasonably expected that vectoring all the blame for this overarching event on the younger Hariri would deflate all the anger and possible unrest which could have been triggered by the release of the international assassination inquiry.

To add emphasis, on Aug. 6, a small hire-a-thug mob attacked Saad Hariri’s convoy and stoned several of its cars while blaming Hariri personally for the corruption and blast.

Conspiracy theories emerge

Within about 36 hours of the blast, a radical-left Jewish organization marked by its animosity towards Israel, Tikkun Olam, published an article by Richard Silverstein, that laid the blame for the catastrophe on a sloppy and uninformed Israeli raid on a Hezbollah arms cache. According to the article, the Israelis were unaware that the cache was located next to a massive ammonium nitrate stash. He cited only the abandoned first-hour rumors that it was an Israeli frogman attack, which the Israeli paper Haaretz reported not as fact from Israeli sources, but as dutiful second-hand reporting of what some Lebanese sources were saying in those first minutes.

Within about 48 hours, photos began appearing showing various assortments of objects hurtling toward the doomed site at the time of the final, massive explosion. One showed a missile with an exhaust trail plunging down—although a) the missile was out of scale, b) missiles in terminal descent do not burn fuel and have no exhaust trail, c) the image is a miniature SCUD, not any known missile from a Western arsenal and d) the original video is available and does not have that object in it. In fact, a close examination of other videos showed a deliberately fast-framed bird passing through, and others simply photoshopped images onto existing videos that clearly contained no foreign objects.

In short, about 48 hours after the blast, an escalating trend, perhaps campaign, of photoshopped images began appearing to make it look as if this was the result of an external attack by a foreign power—likely Israel.

Similarly, after about 48 hours, Iranian propaganda outlets were saying that the United States had done this intentionally as well.

Lebanese government hints at shifting its story

By Friday (Aug. 7), the Lebanese government began hinting that it was shifting its narrative. Until then, the government and Hezbollah were disciplined in messaging that it was all the result of corruption, implicitly blaming the previous Hariri government for the tragedy. But on Aug. 7, Lebanese President Michel Aoun hinted that the Lebanese government is examining the possibility that the affair was caused by an external force, either via a missile or a bomb.

If the reigning Hezbollah-Syrian Quisling government and its Syrian and Iranian patrons shift to this new narrative, it will be a sign of increasing nervousness. Indeed, there are clear signs the Lebanese people have little patience for this.

So, what now?

Almost universally, reports from Lebanon describe a population transitioning from shock to fury directed at the government and at Hezbollah. Lebanon had already been in crisis, having lost nearly 100 billion in wealth over the last months. The previous government was ousted several months ago following street riots over this banking collapse. The Lebanese already before the blast understood the new government was merely the result of a game of musical chairs, and not a real change, and were thus already gripped by despair.

In the coming days, several Lebanese who in the past managed to galvanize mass demonstrations to eject Syria from Lebanon on March 14, 2005 (the “March 14th movement”), have declared that “this now is war. Enough.” The leaders of the Lebanese opposition (to the government) initiative worked with the Vatican, through the Maronite Patriarch Boutrus el-Rahi, and have the buy-in of other Christian denominations and of Sunni, Christian and some Shi’ite leaders for the initiative, the terms of which are the following:

1. Full implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1559, 1680 and 1701. The upshot is Syrian withdrawal and complete Hezbollah dismantlement. Trying to avoid the incomplete results of 2005, they are hoping to make these resolutions legally binding under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter.

2. Restoration of the neutrality pact which governed Lebanon’s relations with the whole region in the 1950s and 1960s. This is explicitly stated in agreement already reached between various Christian and Sunni leaders to be “neither East nor West,” and “neither Nasrallah nor Erdoğan.” In other words, they reject Iran and Turkey alike.

3. Restoration of the May 17, 1983, Lebanese-Israeli non-aggression agreement which followed the 1982 “Operation Peace for Galilee” Lebanon-Israel war, which resulted in the expulsion of the PLO under Yasser Arafat from Beirut to Tunis. This is not a peace treaty between Israel and Lebanon, but a non-belligerence arrangement that returns the border to the situation it was in before the entry of the PLO after the 1967 war (the “good fence” arrangement). The United States, as part of the “Peace to Prosperity” plan, last year attempted to negotiate a new Israeli-Lebanese non-belligerence agreement, and then-Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz even met with his Lebanese counterpart. However, these efforts ultimately proved impossible in light of Lebanon’s domination by Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.

French President Emmanuel Macron, on his visit to Beirut on Aug. 6 to express support for the devastated city, was heavily exposed to the street sentiment in Beirut, which was a demand to remove the Syria-Quisling government and get rid of Hezbollah. Macron promised all French aid would flow directly to the people and not pass through Hezbollah and the Syrian-Quisling and Iran-backed government for profit and skimming. He ultimately promised that he would present a “new national pact” for Lebanon shortly—a sign that he has adopted the emerging Lebanese opposition initiative.

At this point, there is no visible “official” Shi’ite buy-in to this agreement, because any sanctioned Shi’ite official is there at the indulgence of Hezbollah. It is likely that we may see several Shi’ite clerics, who have long suffered in quiet discomfort, view this as an opportunity to finally assert their independence and come out in public to split from the Hezbollah-sanctioned leadership.

Lebanon is at a tipping point, and, in fact, already was before the horrific blast. This emerging initiative, which also has its roots before the blast, appears to represent a major push by various Lebanese sectors of society to push it over the tipping point into a rout of Hezbollah and Syria, and most of all of their patron, Iran. At the same time, they are putting Erdoğan on notice that even the Sunnis have had enough of foreign intervention and have no more desire to become a pawn of Turkey than they do to remain a pawn of Iran.

The Lebanese government, however, is attempting to build the narrative that this is a result of the endemic corruption and incompetence of previous administrations, such as the Hariri government. It thus hopes to follow the suit of the Iranians, who two weeks ago signed a salvation agreement with the Chinese (salvation for their government, not nation).

Namely, the Lebanese government will likely attempt to launch a major rebuilding of the port and city under Chinese auspices and financing, and present themselves, Hezbollah, Iran and China as Lebanon’s savior from the previous government’s catastrophic failure and reliance on the West. They fail, of course, to note that ever since 2008, when Hezbollah launched what was essentially a military coup, Lebanon was no longer independent, but operating entirely under Hezbollah, Syrian and Iranian tutelage, with nothing happening—especially not in the Port of Beirut—without their knowledge and sign-off. In short, since 2008 the “Lebanese government” has been a fiction covering the real Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah power.

And they fail, of course, to note that Hezbollah was keenly aware of the dangers of storing this quantity of ammonium nitrate in a densely populated civilian area. They knew it could cause an explosion equivalent to that of a small nuclear device, potentially killing thousands. In fact, Hezbollah, indeed Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah himself, threatened explicitly in 2018 to do to Haifa in Israel exactly what just happened in Beirut, saying lobbing a bomb at the ammonium nitrate stores in Haifa with its population of 800,000 would be tantamount to a nuclear attack.

As such, as hard as they are working to build their narrative, the Lebanese population, with the exception of the few benefiting personally from Hezbollah rule, are not buying it—at all.

What we are witnessing may indeed be the beginning of the end for Hezbollah and the Syrian-Iranian Quisling government, either the official one or the real one which has held Lebanon in a steel grip since 2008.

It is imperative for Western powers to get to the bottom of the ship story, to establish that hangars 9 and 12 are indeed Hezbollah’s “Fatima gate,” to expose what the suspicious materials were that led to the second blast (since it indicates an arms shipment), and finally, whether the Beirut disaster was, in fact, a story of incompetence and “stranded” cargo, or a Hezbollah stash from which it could send ammonium nitrate deliveries to operatives around the world, such as those caught in 2015 in London with three tons of ammonium nitrate trying to set up a number of bomb-making factories, those caught in Cyprus with nine tons of ammonium nitrate and those caught in Germany with an unreported amount of ammonium nitrate.

Dr. David Wurmser is director of the Center for Security Policy’s Project on Global Anti-Semitism and the U.S.-Israel Relationship. A former U.S. Navy Reserve intelligence officer, he has extensive national security experience working for the State Department, the Pentagon, Vice President Dick Cheney and the National Security Council.

This article was originally published by The Foundation for American Security and Freedom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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