The massive blast that rocked Beirut earlier this week is being billed as a tragic accident that left hundreds dead and thousands wounded. The explosion also severely damaged the country’s infrastructure and left many residents without power in the sweltering Beirut summer heat.
But former intelligence officers intimately familiar with the region caution that Israel, concerned about the explosive stockpile and the impotent Lebanese government, may have ignited the ammonium nitrate to deny terrorist group Hezbollah access to the chemicals.
Ammonium Nitrate Explosion
Beirut was devastated on 5 August, after 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the port exploded. The Government of Lebanon reported that the explosion was an accident, caused by improper storage of the chemical.
That ammonium nitrate arrived in Lebanon six years ago, after a Russian ship heading to Mozambique was forced to divert to Beirut due to legal, financial and physical problems. The ship was abandoned – and subsequently sank – and the cargo was placed in the warehouse for storage.
Ammonium nitrate is a crystalline substance generally used for fertilizer, but also used in combination with fuel oils as an explosive. This combination is used in the construction industry and is also adopted by terrorist groups to create improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing used ammonium nitrate, as did the 2004 North Korea railway bombing.
While ammonium nitrate is deadly when it explodes, it is not combustible without a catalyst. Chemists who saw footage of the explosion speculated that there was an initial small explosion which heated up the mountain of ammonium nitrate and then caused the larger explosion. Under normal conditions, ammonium nitrate is stable, and not likely to explode.
Requests to Move the Chemical
Customs officials in Lebanon were aware of the potential dangers of the having the huge amount of ammonium nitrate sitting in the port and attempted to have it moved. This required the approval of the judiciary.
Salim Aoun, a Lebanese politician and member of Parliament, posted public records showing that customs officials wrote to the Lebanese courts at least six times between 2014 and 2017 asking to move the material. They asked to export it, sell it, or to donate it to the military.
However, the judiciary reportedly failed to respond to any requests.
The Hezbollah Risk
Hezbollah is a Shia Muslim organization that has political, military and social branches. It is part of the Government of Lebanon and is extremely powerful in the country. Its military wing is a designated terrorist organization, and it has been involved in an on-going conflict with Israel since its founding. Hezbollah is closely aligned with Iran, which offers financial support topping $700 million a year, as well as ideological and military backing for the organization.
Additionally, Hezbollah is known to use the port for smuggling, including bringing weapons from Iran to Lebanon.
If Hezbollah accessed the ammonium nitrate, it would be “the gift that keeps on giving,” according to a former intelligence officer. He indicated that Hezbollah could make IEDs with the chemical “’almost indefinitely.”
While some commentators have dismissed the possibility of Israeli involvement in the blast, former intelligence officers say it is not as unrealistic as it may sound.
Israel has long taken steps to protect its territory. Between 2010 and 2017, for example, four Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated, and Iran blamed Israel for the attacks. Several media reports indicated that Western intelligence confirmed Israeli involvement. Israel considers Iran and its proxies, including Hezbollah, to be primary threats to the state.
Former intelligence officers indicate that the possibility of Hezbollah having access to almost 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate may have simply been too much for Israel to ignore.
One officer noted, “It is impossible Israeli intelligence was not aware of the stockpile. It’s just not possible.” And they also almost certainly were aware of unanswered requests by customs officials to remove the chemicals.
According to the intelligence officer, “It is also not plausible that if Israel was aware of the stockpile that it would be comfortable to leave it sitting within arm’s reach of Hezbollah.”
The threat was likely even higher given Lebanon’s increasingly feeble administration. The government is riddled with corruption, and patronage, a pegged currency, and government mismanagement have ruined the economy, raising the likelihood of yet another failed government in Beirut.
Accident or Military Operation?
Ultimately, the public likely will never know the true cause of the explosion.
Anti-Hezbollah elements accuse the organization of storing weapons with the ammonium nitrate, leading to the blast. Hezbollah denies these accusations, and warns that blaming the group will only lead to civil war.
Others say Israel is responsible. Both Israel and Lebanon say that there is no evidence that Israel was behind the detonation.
Almost everyone agrees that the Aoun government bears responsibility for allowing the chemicals to languish in the storage facility at the port.
No one will celebrate the loss of life and property damage caused by the explosion. But whether it was an accident or a secret military operation, the explosion has provided Israel some relief that one of its main enemies has lost the opportunity to use the ammonium nitrate to create bombs.
The explosion should also serve as a warning to both Lebanon and Israel that any war between Israel and Hezbollah will involve extensive devastation to both sides.