Causes of Beirut blast under scrutiny, Hezbollah in spotlight

The Iran-backed party is seen as bearing the effective responsibility for storage conditions in the port.
Wednesday 05/08/2020
An army helicopter drops water at the scene of Tuesday’s massive explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 5. (AP)
An army helicopter drops water at the scene of Tuesday’s massive explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 5. (AP)

BEIRUT--As politicians and security experts focus on the causes of the blast that rocked Beirut Tuesday, killing more than 100 people and injuring thousands, there is still no clear apportioning of blame or authoritative explanation of how the explosion happened.

Contrary to speculation on social media and remarks by US President Donald Trump, there is not yet any evidence that the blast was the result of a premeditated act.

Lebanese leaders have identified the explosive material that was detonated in the blast. Lebanese President Michel Aoun said that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures, which he sad was “unacceptable.”

Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon’s general directorate of general security, dismissed speculation that fireworks stored in the port caused the explosion. He said it would be “naive to describe such an explosion as due to fireworks.”

Lebanese Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi, in comments to a local TV station, made no mention of ignited fireworks, but said the blast appeared to have been caused by the detonation of more than 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a warehouse at the dock ever since it was confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014.

The devastation surrounding the port in fact resembled other ammonium nitrate explosions, such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and a 1947 ship explosion that struck Texas City, Texas.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab said in a televised address to the nation there would be accountability for the deadly blast at the “dangerous warehouse.” But he did not say why such explosive material has remained unsecured in an essentially commercial area for years.

Many experts and politicians in Beirut see the catastrophic explosion as having been facilitated by storage conditions in the port area and point the finger at Hezbollah. The area is generally considered to be under de facto control of the Iran-backed party and its militia.

A view shows damaged buildings near the site of Tuesday’s blast in Beirut’s port area, Lebanon August 5. (REUTERS)
A view shows damaged buildings near the site of Tuesday’s blast in Beirut’s port area, Lebanon August 5. (REUTERS)

US TV network Fox News quoted multiple sources as saying that much of the port’s operations “were under unofficial control” of the militant party and that “organized crime operations run out of the port, primarily controlled by Hezbollah.”

There were also reports of arms and ammunition stored by the militant group in the port area. “There is a possibility that fireworks, petrol and weapons were stored together,” an intelligence source told Fox News.

According to Ian Bradbury, president of the Canada-based defence consultancy Terra Nova Strategic Management, “there is some speculation concerning weapons shipments previously received or stored within this sector of the port, but as of now, unconfirmed.”

Retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Rudolph Atallah, CEO of White Mountain Research and former Pentagon counter-terrorism expert, believes Hezbollah is likely to bear more heat as result of the blast, and not just for its possible responsibility for the conditions of the port’s storage facilities but because of popular anger at its mismanagement of aid. Following the blast, the group seems to have taken precautionary measures by deploying militants on the ground and discouraging protests.

“People are seeing that the food and aid supply coming in for coronavirus is being sold on the black market by them or going into Syria because Hezbollah has such a vested interest there,” Atallah said. “And the disinformation since the explosions has been crazy, with text messages sent around warning people to stay in their homes. Hezbollah doesn’t want protests, and it doesn’t want the Lebanese speaking out against them.”

While UK officials are warning against premature speculation about the cause of the blast, the US president said it might have been a premeditated attack.

According to Trump, US military generals “seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind.”

He later added: “It would seem like it based on the explosion. I met with some of our great generals and they just seem to feel that it was. This was not a — some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of a event. … They seem to think it was a attack. It was a bomb of some kind, yes.”

No other US officials confirmed Trump’s statements.

Concerned that the blast could cause escalating tensions to lead to military confrontation, both Israel and Hezbollah were quick to dismiss allegations that Israel was involved in the explosion.

Senior Hezbollah officials told OTV Lebanon that social media rumours about an Israeli attack causing the blast were false.

“There is no truth to rumours about an Israeli strike against Hezbollah weapons in the port,” a Hezbollah source told the station.

Israel Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi also indicated that Israel was not involved, telling the country’s Channel 12 news “I see no reason to not believe the reports that it was an accident.”

What experts agree on is that the explosion and possibly related revelations and expected attempts at placing blame for it are likely to heighten tensions in a country that is already on the edge.

“Currently, it appears that the explosion in Lebanon was not the result of a military strike,” surmised Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice-president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). “For now, this explosion appears to be the result of ineptitude. But the ongoing tensions make it clear that future explosions may be the result of something more deliberate. These tensions also come at a particularly bad time for Lebanon.”