On August 4, 2020, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire creating a massive explosion that devastated Beirut. The explosion emanating in the Port of Beirut left over 150 dead, over 5,000 injured and 300,000 homeless. The blast was so powerful it instantly destroyed entire neighborhoods and was felt over 100 miles away in Cyprus.
As a law student, I spend a considerable amount of time crafting open and closing arguments. This entails connecting all the pieces of information in order to create a full picture for the both judge and jury. When trying to prove guilt, the focus is on means, motive, and opportunity. As a former intelligence analyst and IDF paratrooper, I am all too familiar with Hezbollah and its tactics. So, when I read that the explosion was caused by ammonium nitrate, my first question was what was 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate doing at the Port of Beirut? The key to answering this question certainly lies with the terrorist group Hezbollah. Three things clearly link Hezbollah to this disaster. One, Hezbollah’s influence over the state of Lebanon (the means); two, Hezbollah’s profound interest in ammonium nitrate (the motive); and three Hezbollah’s well-documented control of the port of Beirut (the opportunity).
Let me begin by introducing Hezbollah. Hezbollah is recognized as a terrorist organization by Western and Arab nations alike. Hezbollah is an extremely powerful organization, funded, armed, and backed politically by Iran. It receives close to $1 billion annually from Iran and is believed to have up to 50,000 professional salaried soldiers on active duty and in reserve. Most importantly, it possesses over 150,000 long range missiles making it more powerful than most of the militaries in the world. Hezbollah is most notable for blowing up a US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 which killed 307 people, including 220 Marines, blowing up a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1994 which killed 85 people, fighting several wars against Israel, assassinating the Lebanese Prime Minister in 2005 and most recently, fighting on behalf of Syria’s Assad to crush the Syrian uprising.
The means: Hezbollah’s influence over the state of Lebanon
In recent years, Hezbollah has amassed immense influence over Lebanon both politically and militarily. Hezbollah is now the powerbroker holding the Lebanese government together, it heads major government ministries and has more members of parliament than ever before. It used its leverage to get Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun the presidency. Imad Salamey, a political science professor at the Lebanese American University, described Hezbollah as the “major architect” of the new Lebanese government formed in 2020. Militarily, Hezbollah is significantly stronger than the Lebanese military and therefore dictates foreign policy and all things related to state security. So therefore, if Hezbollah desired to keep 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate at the Beirut port, little could be done to prevent it.
The motive: Hezbollah’s connection with ammonium nitrate
Ammonium nitrate is a highly explosive chemical compound used in bomb making and a major component of Hezbollah’s arsenal. Hezbollah’s motive to possess ammonium nitrate is abundantly clear. In fact, it has a lengthy record of trying to acquire and store the combustible chemical.
Leaked diplomatic cables in 2009 revealed Hezbollah’s efforts to purchase mass quantities of ammonium nitrate in Syria. In 2015, MI5 and the London Metropolitan Police raided a Hezbollah warehouse in London containing three metric tons of ammonium nitrate. British security services stated the material was to be used to attack Israeli or Jewish sites in the United Kingdom. During the same year, a Hezbollah operative was arrested in Cyprus after being caught in possession of 8.2 tons of ammonium nitrate and security services in Thailand raided several Hezbollah stash houses containing this substance throughout the country. In 2016, German security services, in coordination with Israel’s Mossad, uncovered hundreds of kilograms of ammonium nitrate hidden in Hezbollah warehouses in Southern Germany. Then in 2019, a U.S. federal judge in New York sentenced a Hezbollah operative to a 40-year prison term for seeking to acquire hundreds of pounds of ammonium nitrate. With Hezbollah so determined to acquire Ammonium nitrate throughout the world, 2,750 tons of it sitting in the port of Beirut would certainly not go unnoticed. Hezbollah’s motive to prevent the chemical from leaving the Port of Beirut is beyond compelling.
In a twist of bitter irony, during a 2017 televised speech, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, threatened to hit Ammonium tanks in the Israeli city of Haifa with precision-guided missiles which he claimed would cause a “nuclear explosion”. Nasrallah boasted it would kill tens of thousands of Israelis. Nasrallah and Hezbollah were unequivocally aware of how severe an explosion of Ammonium nitrate would be.
The opportunity: Hezbollah and the Port of Beirut
The circumstances surrounding how the ammonium nitrate landed at the Port of Beirut are somewhat murky. The chemicals were allegedly confiscated from the Rhosus, a Russian vessel heading for Africa. What is clear, however, is Hezbollah’s control over large parts of the Port of Beirut and its usage of the port for its various smuggling operations.
In 2019, the US Treasury Department leveled sanctions on senior Hezbollah members for their connection to weapons smuggling via the Port of Beirut and Beirut’s Rafiq Hariri International Airport. The report documented Hezbollah’s control over the Port and how it is used to smuggle Iranian weapons into Lebanon. In 2019, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations proclaimed, “The Port of Beirut is now the Port of Hezbollah”. Intelligence gathered by Israeli Defense Forces revealed that between 2016 and 2018, Hezbollah smuggled Iranian precision-guided missiles into Lebanon “by air, using civilian flights to Rafiq Hariri International Airport in Beirut, and by sea, via the Port of Beirut.”
Hezbollah’s control over the Port of Beirut and influence in Lebanon provided the opportunity to keep the ammonium nitrate sitting right there at a warehouse located at the port, despite the clear danger to the civilian population. This follows a well-known Hezbollah pattern. The UN, human rights groups, and Israel continuously accuse Hezbollah of keeping its weapon arsenals in the heart of heavily populated areas. So, it is no surprise that even in the face of opposition, the ammonium nitrate remained on site at “Hezbollah Port”.
Reports are now emerging of the Beirut Port Authority’s failed attempts to have the ammonium nitrate removed. Badri Daher, the director general of Beirut Customs, claims he wrote 5-6 letters to Lebanon’s Judge of Urgent Matters indicating the extreme danger of the ammonium nitrate and pleaded for it to be immediately removed. Various news networks including Reuters and CNN have confirmed seeing these documents by the Lebanese Customs asking the judiciary for the ammonium nitrate to be removed. The judiciary never responded to any of Daher’s letters. Lebanese media has reported that the issue was brought before the government’s sitting cabinet, the state prosecutor and other state institutions as well. The Director General of Beirut Port Hassan Kraytem told Lebanese reporters, “Customs and State Security sent letters [to the authorities] asking to remove or re-export the explosive materials six years ago, and we have been waiting since then for this issue to be resolved, but to no avail.”
Hezbollah now sits in the court of public opinion
Hezbollah had the means, the motive, and the opportunity to keep the massive cache of ammonium nitrate sitting at the Port of Beirut, but sadly, you will likely never see Hassan Nasrallah or other Hezbollah leaders sitting in a Lebanese courtroom. The Lebanese government has vowed to conduct an investigation but do not expect Hezbollah to suffer any consequences. While Hezbollah will not face judicial justice, make no mistake, it currently sits in the court of public opinion.
The Lebanese people are extremely resilient, but they are at their wits end. A popular protest movement began in Lebanon earlier this year in response to a disastrous economy, Covid-19, and vast governmental corruption. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets. For the first time, the Lebanese people are openly criticizing and standing up to Hezbollah. Hezbollah thugs attacking protesters across the country have not deterred their resolve. Now this unfathomable tragedy has struck Beirut at the most inopportune time. While most of the international news media are writing this off as a terrible inadvertent tragedy, the Lebanese people are much more skeptical. They are acutely aware of Hezbollah and its well-known practice of keeping its weapons in heavily populated areas. So, while we will not see Hezbollah in any court rooms, look for the Lebanese people to fight for change in the streets.