Beirut port explosion

What started the fateful fire at Beirut port on Aug. 4? An investigation into the leading theories

What caused warehouse 12 to catch fire, leading to the massive blast at the Beirut port? Although no theory can be ruled out completely, the possibility that the fire was accidental appears to be more plausible than the scenario of an attack, according to an investigation by L’Orient-Le Jour.

What started the fateful fire at Beirut port on Aug. 4? An investigation into the leading theories

Beirut’s port smolders after the catastrophic Aug. 4 explosion. (Credit: AFP)

Almost nine months have passed, yet the Lebanese continue to wait for answers on what triggered 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate to explode in the heart of the Beirut port on Aug. 4.

The blast, one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history, killed more than 200 people and ravaged much of the capital.

The purpose of the ongoing investigation, currently led by Judge Tarek Bitar, is threefold. First, to track down the history of Rhosus, the ship that brought the ammonium nitrate, an agricultural fertilizer that can also be used as an explosive, to the Port of Beirut: why did this Moldovan-registered vessel carrying the chemical dock at the Beirut port in 2013, and who owned the cargo it brought? Second, to try to determine which officials were responsible for these hazardous materials being stored for so many years at the port, inside warehouse 12. Third, to find out exactly what happened on Aug. 4 that caused the warehouse to catch fire and the ammonium nitrate to explode.

According to legal sources familiar with the issue, Bitar’s investigation has made progress in relation to the first two points. “However, it remains unknown what ignited things on Aug. 4 in a warehouse where huge amounts of explosives were stored alongside the bags of ammonium nitrate,” one said.

The possibility of an accidental fire linked to repair works that were taking place at warehouse 12 on the same day gained traction among the Lebanese authorities in the aftermath of the explosion.

But to get to the bottom of this, the Lebanese judiciary needs the reports of experts commissioned by France — reports the French have yet to submit to the Lebanese authorities.

In the wake of the tragedy, France, the United States and the United Kingdom sent experts who worked with the Lebanese Internal Security Forces on the ground to try to reconstruct the day’s events in order to clarify the explosion’s causes.

While the FBI submitted its report in October, it did not appear to have reached any conclusive answers beyond the Lebanese security forces’ findings.

“The French carried out the most in-depth technical and scientific work, with divers who took out samples underwater. Both the [previous and current] lead investigators, Fadi Sawwan and Tarek Bitar, told me that they were impatiently waiting for the results,” caretaker Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm told L’Orient-Le Jour.

The possibility of an external attack

The circumstances surrounding the Beirut port blast could fuel the most paranoid scenarios — and for good reason, given the series of coincidences that unfolded in the weeks leading up to Aug. 4.

How was it possible that chemicals that had been stored poorly for seven years ended up exploding when works to secure the premises were finally launched?

How does one explain the fact that the catastrophe occurred only two weeks after Lebanon’s president received a letter informing him for the first time of the presence of such a massive quantity of ammonium nitrate at the port?

How could one forget that hours before the explosion, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to make Hezbollah pay the same price as in 2006, following a series of clashes along the Israel–Lebanon border?

And finally, how could one fail to remember that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was set to deliver its verdict in the case of the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Aug. 7, three days after the disaster?

To better unravel this complex entanglement, it is important to look back on the moments leading up to the explosion.

At around 5:55 p.m., the Beirut Fire Brigade was notified that a blaze had broken out at the port, without being given any information as to the presence of the ammonium nitrate stockpile at the scene.

At the same time, a video made the rounds on social media showing plumes of white smoke billowing from the warehouse, just in front of the port’s towering grain silos.

A few minutes after the firefighters arrived, the fire intensified, and the smoke turned black. They called for backup and attempted to open the warehouse. The fire raged on, and a series of explosions went off, with large sparks suggesting the presence of fireworks.

At 6:08 p.m., an enormous fireball materialized in the middle of the warehouse, followed by a massive blast equivalent to about 600 tons of TNT that would leave a crater 100 meters wide and six meters deep — an explosion that would cause widespread damage in areas as far as 10 kilometers away from the blast site.

Just hours after the tragedy, as the authorities began to mention the possibility of an accidental explosion of the ammonium nitrate stockpile, then-US President Donald Trump said, “It looks like a terrible attack,” claiming to have information from American generals, without naming them.

Trump’s statements, however, were negated on the same day by his defense officials, who said that if there had been any indication that a regional player (i.e. Israel) could have carried out an operation of this scale, Washington would have automatically mobilized its forces to protect its interests in the region for fear of any retaliation.

Three days after the explosion, it was the Lebanese president’s turn to raise the possibility of an attack “by means of a missile or a bomb.”

President Michel Aoun said he had asked France for access to satellite images in order to “verify whether this was an external aggression or the result of negligence.”

Commenting on whether or not Aoun maintains his statement today, Salim Jreissati, his adviser and a former minister, tells L’Orient-Le Jour that at the time and in light of the scale of the disaster, the president could not rule out the theory of an act of war or sabotage.

“Since many Lebanese had claimed to have heard planes flying, the president asked for satellite images. But as soon as the case was referred to the Court of Justice, the head of state stopped commenting on the investigation or discussing any theory,” he adds.

Accustomed to frequent airspace violations by Israeli jets, many Lebanese said they recognized the sound of aircraft before the explosion.

Retired Brig. Gen. Khalil Helou claims the same. “I am sure it was an Israeli attack that the world is covering up. The fact that the French are not giving Lebanon all the [satellite] images is proof of this,” he says.

On the matter of access to these satellite images, it remains unclear what transpired between France and Lebanon in relation to their provision. The question we ask: was there any refusal to provide them?

“No. But the requests were not sent through judicial means. It’s a matter of procedure,” a French diplomatic source told L’Orient-Le Jour.

Within the Lebanese government, however, it was understood that France had promised to provide the material.

Will these images be submitted to presiding Judge Bitar alongside the much-anticipated scientific expert report?

L’Orient-Le Jour learned from a Lebanese official that when Sawwan was still leading the investigation, he appealed to the United Nations to request that member states submit these images to the Lebanese authorities — something that was outside the UN’s remit, the UN secretary-general told Sawwan.

The US, for its part, transmitted insignificant “Google map” type images, the official said.

However, the chance that an intelligence satellite was able to capture images over the Beirut port at the time of the explosion would seem slim, as most satellites operate in low orbit. They revolve around the globe at a speed greater than the Earth’s rotation and do not remain above a single certain point.

For now, there is no evidence pointing to an air attack. According to a document dated Aug. 7 with attached images that L’Orient-Le Jour reviewed, the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation said the local radar system did not spot any jets, either enemy or friendly, in Lebanese airspace between 5 p.m. and 6:10 p.m. on Aug. 4.

What’s more, analysis of photos and video footage taken at the time of the fire and explosion did not detect any aircraft or missile, the latter of which can generally be detectable by the naked eye if it is a large one, and also by radars.

“The explosion cannot be the result of a jet or military drone operation, as this would have been detected by all the radars of neighboring countries,” says Joseph Henrotin, a political scientist specializing in defense and the editor-in-chief of the monthly magazine Défense et Sécurité Internationale.

“It is too far fetched to imagine that everyone would want to hide this information,” he adds.

“Attacking the center of the city like that, next to the grain silos, is just too much. I don’t know of any air force officer who would recommend such an operation. This would create absolutely uncontrollable collateral damage, and it is ridiculous in terms of discretion,” Henrotin says.

He added that if Israel had wanted to neutralize a target in the center of the city, it would have called in special forces.

The Hezbollah weapons cache theory

Israel denied any involvement in the Aug. 4 events.

However, Helou, the retired general, does not buy this. “The Jewish state did not expect damages of such magnitude because it was not aiming to target the ammonium nitrate but an arms depot or other Hezbollah interests at the Beirut port,” he insists.

Helou’s allegations regarding Hezbollah, shared by an element of public opinion and relayed in certain articles, have been firmly denied by the party’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah.

“There is nothing belonging to us at the port, not a stockpile of weapons, no rockets, no guns, no bombs, no bullets, no nitrate. There is nothing, there has not been and there will not be any,” Nasrallah said firmly in his Aug. 7 speech, stressing that the investigation would prove him right.

In recent years, Israel has been carrying out airstrikes against Hezbollah targets in Syria with a stated aim of preventing further arms supplies from Tehran to the Shiite party.

In 2019, however, the Israelis carried out an unprecedented attack in the Lebanese capital, in which small drones, one of which was carrying an explosive charge of five kilograms, crashed in the southern suburb of Beirut.

The unmanned aerial vehicle exploded against a Hezbollah center, wounding three people and causing damage to the property. It was the first time that explosive-laden drones were seen flying over the airport, endangering civil and commercial aviation traffic and crashing into the streets of Lebanon.

If such small devices were behind the Aug. 4 explosion, they would have to have moved unseen and with impressive precision to enter the warehouse through an opening in order to cause the anticipated damage.

However, according to the lawyer of one of the individuals detained in relation to the port explosion investigation, although several windows in warehouse 12 were open when the fire broke out, they were covered with wire mesh.

Yet it remains necessary to prove whether or not there was indeed a weapons cache in the building, which could be the target of an attack.

“Why would Hezbollah use the Port of Beirut, where many security services operate, as a weapons warehouse? It doesn’t make sense,” says Mohanad Hage Ali, a researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center, who confirms that there has been nothing to support this theory in the past.

“The port is a Lebanese institution where all parties are represented and operate. It is too exposed a place for Hezbollah to freely manufacture munitions.”

According to the Lebanese judicial police investigation report, which L’Orient-Le Jour managed to review, there was no trace of ammunition to be found. The document mentions a list of materials that Lebanese experts collected from the explosion site.

The metal pieces that some people found scattered in the streets of Beirut and which some believed to be the wreckage of missiles and ammunition, were identified as fragments from the structure of warehouse 12 that was destroyed.

The aforementioned report, dated Aug. 25, said that the analyzed samples did not reveal any trace of military or explosive shells.

Meetings between the FBI and Lebanese investigators on Aug. 21, the reports of which were leaked in the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hezbollah, reached a similar conclusion.

For now, only the French findings are still pending.

A part of Lebanese public opinion suspects that Hezbollah wanted to set fire to the ammonium nitrate stockpile in order to erase any evidence connecting it to the chemical.

According to this theory, the Shiite party would have acted as a mule for the Syrian regime in transporting the chemical to Damascus so it could be used to make explosives.

In fact, the ammonium nitrate cargo arrived in Lebanon at a time when the regime of Bashar al-Assad was accused of dropping barrel bombs (packed with TNT and scrap metal), killing thousands of civilians.

Damascus purportedly had every interest to keep the ammonium nitrate at the Beirut port so as not to come under scrutiny by the international community.

An investigation by journalist Firas Hatoum that was broadcast on Al-Jadeed television at the end of January reported on the alleged involvement of three businessmen, who are dual Russian-Syrian citizens and are close to the Syrian regime, in delivering the ammonium nitrate to the Beirut port.

In order to verify this theory, it would be necessary to be able to prove, among other things, whether or not the ammonium nitrate stockpile had been fully intact.

According to a judicial source, Lebanese and French experts estimated that 20 to 25 percent of the total ammonium nitrate stock had exploded — that is to say 500 to 700 out of the 2,750 tons.

Does this suggest that the remainder of the chemical was not at the warehouse when the explosion occurred?

Not necessarily. The Lebanese judicial police report mentions that due to improper storage, the ammonium nitrate bags did not fully detonate, which greatly reduced the magnitude of the blast.

What’s more, the amount of the chemical that did not explode might have burned or dispersed. According to Gareth Collett, a British engineer and a UN explosives expert, it is almost impossible to determine the exact quantity of the product that was present at the warehouse before the explosion.

Warehouse 12: A time bomb

Collett worked with the London-based Forensic Architecture (FA) research agency on the famous 3-D reconstruction of the layout of the materials inside warehouse 12 before its explosion.

His expertise helped FA study the smoke emitted from warehouse 12 on Aug. 4 to determine how the various materials were stored within the building and how the fire that broke out there spread.

Inside warehouse 12, quantities of flammable materials that should not be stored together were in fact housed in close proximity. The materials stored there included 23 tons of fireworks, tires, methanol, ignition fuses, oils, furniture, wood, foodstuffs and, of course, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate.

Putting aside the theory of an attack, all the conditions were in place for this formidable cocktail to explode at the slightest incident.

Commenting on which material might have first caught fire in the warehouse, Collett told L’Orient-Le Jour that the white smoke that was visible at the start is typical of rapidly flammable substances, such as cardboard and wood, the combustion of which can be caused by a cigarette or match, or any spark from welding or an electrical problem.

The fire then developed and spread to the rest of the combustible materials, such as tires, flammable liquids and fireworks, and as it intensified, it reached other areas of the warehouse.

According to Collett, the ammonium nitrate that was stored in poor conditions for years could not withstand such intense heat. Its explosion was, at this point, inevitable.

Were the Lebanese investigators aware that they were dealing with a real time bomb since they were quick to assume that the fire was linked to welding works?

Warehouse 12 had been undergoing repairs since July 29, 2020. A state security report drawn up two months earlier by then-Capt. Joseph Naddaf highlighted the deplorable conditions of the warehouse.

The country’s chief prosecutor, Ghassan Oueidat, had therefore ordered works to secure the premises in a bid to prevent any intrusion or theft of materials from the warehouse that could be used for terrorist purposes.

The company of Salim Chebli, a contractor who has been working at the port since 1994, won the tender to carry out the works for LL6 million.

The contractor and his workers had to repair a few doors and fill holes, including a hole of 40 centimeters in diameter, in the warehouse walls.

On their fourth and last day of work, i.e. the day of the explosion, three employees from the Chebli company carried out maintenance and welding works on two doors of warehouse 12.

According to information obtained by L’Orient-Le Jour, the workers, who have been detained along with their boss Salim Chebli since August 2020, confirm that the last welding works on doors No. 3 and No. 11 were completed around 4 p.m.

They later moved to another site to carry out other repairs before leaving the port at around 5 p.m., which was confirmed by surveillance cameras.

Could the repair works that were carried out that day have sparked the fire in the warehouse less than two hours later?

The chances of that are slim. First, the maintenance works on the doors were carried out outside the building. Second, the fire started in a zone some 50 meters from where the workers were doing their job.

However, given the extremely poor safety measures at the port, there can be no guarantee that no incident, such as throwing lit cigarettes or other accidental errors or negligence, or even a malicious act, could have occurred during the time of repair works.

According to information obtained by L’Orient-Le Jour, the workers admittedly saw large bags that had been stored improperly in the building but were unaware that they contained ammonium nitrate. They did not have the slightest idea of the materials’ explosive nature. At no time during their work were they alerted to possible danger.

One of the workers even reported that an official at the port requested he enter the warehouse to open one of the doors, which can only be opened from inside, and that on his way in he had to step on bags that were spread all over the place.

Adequate safety measures were not taken to operate on a site that was packed with dangerous substances, neither by the people in charge of the warehouse nor by the workers and their supervisor.

A photo of them on the site in front of the warehouse circulated on social media, clearly showing the rudimentary conditions of the maintenance operation: workers in normal pants and sneakers, without proper suits, tools or protective gear.

This is not to mention the lack of adequate monitoring or supervision. Information obtained by L’Orient-Le Jour indicated that all day on Aug. 3, the workers had been left unattended to do their job, despite the fact that an employee of the port management was assigned to accompany them through all stages of the maintenance process.

L’Orient-Le Jour also learned that the door they had been fixing the day before was closed without being locked, so they could continue the work the next day. This means that the workers had free access to the warehouse, without any supervision.

There is also one more important detail in the particulars L’Orient-Le Jour accessed: while the port management gave the workers the order to leave the warehouse at 2:30 p.m., they stayed past this hour to complete the work. They were left completely unattended in the time leading up to the fire.

What’s more, how could such a maintenance project occur without a detailed inventory of the warehouse’s materials being drawn up in advance and sent to the service providers?

According to information obtained by L’Orient-Le Jour, no inventory has ever been maintained, although 23 tons of fireworks had been placed in the warehouse several years before the arrival of the ammonium nitrate.

This information alone should have been enough to halt repair works and evacuate the pyrotechnic products that must be strictly isolated within a building according to safety regulations.

In short, the contractor was carrying out repair works right next to a ticking bomb that could go off at the slightest spark, while successive warehouse managers and their superiors never appear to have imagined that their negligence could amount to a horrific crime.

“At the end of the day, the cause of the explosion appears to be secondary to the fact that our officials have kept this bomb around for six years without knowing what to do with it. This is the most shocking thing, and says a lot about our institutions,” Hage Ali said, alluding to the evidence that officials at all levels were aware of the danger of the materials stored in the heart of Beirut. Yet no one lifted a finger to evacuate them to a location away from residential areas.


This article was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.

Almost nine months have passed, yet the Lebanese continue to wait for answers on what triggered 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate to explode in the heart of the Beirut port on Aug. 4.The blast, one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history, killed more than 200 people and ravaged much of the capital.The purpose of the ongoing investigation, currently led by Judge Tarek Bitar, is threefold....