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Beirut explosion: Five conspiracy theories explained

As Lebanon reels from a massive explosion in its capital's port, speculation over its causes has been rife
Satellite images show the impact on Beirut's port
Satellite images show the impact on Beirut's port after an explosion on 4 August (AFP/Satellite Image © 2020 Maxar Technologies)

Since Tuesday's explosion brought death and destruction to Lebanon's capital, Beirut, social media has been awash with speculation and conspiracy theories over the source of the huge blast. 

The Lebanese government has so far indicated that it was caused by 2,700 tonnes of the chemical compound ammonium nitrate, which had been left lying in a warehouse in Beirut’s port since 2013.

Ammonium nitrate: What is it and how did it get to Beirut's port?

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There are still many details surrounding the cause of the explosion that devastated much of Beirut on Tuesday that remain murky and unexplained.

However, the Lebanese government has so far indicated that they believe the enormous blast to have been the result of 2,700 tonnes of the chemical compound ammonium nitrate left lying in a warehouse in Beirut port since 2013.

Middle East Eye has compiled a quick guide to the destructive compound and the circumstances surrounding its fateful detonation on Tuesday.

What is ammonium nitrate?

Ammonium nitrate is an industrial chemical commonly used for fertilisers, but also as an explosive, often used in mining.

The chemical, known by the formula NH4NO3, is a naturally white crystalline solid and is often known as saltpetre.

Under most conditions ammonium nitrate is not necessarily dangerous and is relatively stable - it can even be used to smother a fire.

However, if contaminated it can become highly volatile.

What previous incidents have there been?

The most notorious confirmed ammonium nitrate explosion prior to Tuesday was the 1947 Texas City Disaster.

On 16 April 1947, at the Port of Texas City, 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded, killing almost 500 people.

More than 5,000 people were injured and at least 1,000 buildings levelled in the surrounding area.

It was the deadliest industrial accident in US history and resulted in the first-class action lawsuit against the US government on behalf of 8,485 victims.

A more recent incident involving ammonium nitrate took place in 2015 when a series of explosions at a chemical plant in the Chinese port city of Tianjin killed 173 people and injured 798.

Among the blasts at the port was the detonation of 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

Eventually Chinese courts handed jail sentences to 49 government officials and warehouse executives and staff over their involvement in circumventing and loosening safety standards enabling the storage of dangerous chemicals.

How did the chemical end up in the port?

The chemicals originally arrived at Beirut's port on board a Russian-owned cargo vessel flying a Moldovan flag in September 2013.

The shipping monitoring organisation ShipArrested.com at the time reported that "upon inspection of the vessel by Port State Control, the vessel was forbidden from sailing. Most crew except the master and four crew members were repatriated and shortly afterwards the vessel was abandoned by her owners after charterers and cargo concern lost interest in the cargo".

According to documents posted online and seen by Al Jazeera, the ship's dangerous cargo was then offloaded and placed in hangar 12.

Numerous letters were reportedly sent by customs officials, including former director of Lebanese customs Shafik Merhi, to judges between 2014 and 2017 asking for guidance on what to do with the chemicals.

One letter sent in 2016 - which noted there had been "no reply" to previous requests - said the ammonium nitrate was being kept in "unsuitable" conditions.

"In view of the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions, we reaffirm our request to please request the marine agency to re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working in it, or to look into agreeing to sell this amount," said the letter.

Another letter was sent by Lebanese customs administration director general Badri Daher on 27 October 2017 urging a resolution to the situation, in light of "the danger ... of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there".

Many are unconvinced by the official narrative and have offered alternative explanations. 

Middle East Eye looks at five of the most common theories that have emerged, and what we know so far about their likelihood. 

Israeli attack 

Several social media users were quick to pin blame on Israel for the attack, with some citing comments by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shortly before the blast.

After touring a military base in the Israeli city of Ramle on Tuesday, Netanyahu warned: “We hit a cell and now we hit the dispatchers. We will do what is necessary in order to defend ourselves. I suggest to all of them, including Hezbollah, to consider this.”

The PM was referring to the Israeli army, claiming to have thwarted a Syrian government attack along the border in the occupied Golan Heights on Monday, targeting four people who had apparently planted explosives. 

“These are not vain words; they have the weight of the State of Israel and the IDF behind them and this should be taken seriously,” he tweeted.

The comments came as tensions had risen in the area after a Hezbollah fighter was killed in an apparent Israeli strike on the edge of Damascus.

Despite the timing of Netanyahu’s tweet, there is little evidence to suggest Israel was targeting Hezbollah in Beirut. 

An Israeli military source denied carrying out the attack, stating that it was “not a security-related event”. 

Iran, an enemy of the state of Israel, is also thought to have ruled out Tel Aviv's involvement.

Israel announced that it had offered medical and humanitarian aid to Lebanon, and Tel Aviv’s municipal building will light up on Wednesday evening in solidarity with victims of the explosion. 

The offer to help has been criticised by some observers as “propaganda”.

Hezbollah involvement 

While some theorised that Israel carried out the attack in order to target Hezbollah, others speculated that the Lebanese group itself may have played a role.

A 2017 video of Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah threatening to attack Israel’s Haifa port, in which he speaks of the "nuclear-like" explosion caused by ammonium nitrate, was widely shared.

Others re-posted a tweet from the Israeli army purportedly showing the location of an Iranian and Hezbollah "missile project". 

Despite these videos and images resurfacing, Lebanese officials have maintained that the site of the blast was a warehouse storing confiscated materiel, with no suggestion that it was a Hezbollah depot. 

Nuclear or missile bomb 

Although the full details of the incident are yet to emerge, it is widely believed the blast was a result of an accident involving highly explosive materials.

However, scores of people have speculated it was a bomb targeting Lebanon's capital. 

Among those suggesting a deliberate attack may have been carried out was US President Donald Trump.

"I met with some of our great generals and they just seem to feel that it was, this was not some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of event,” he said to reporters on Tuesday.

“This seems to be, according to them, they would know better than I would, but they seem to think it was [an] attack."

The Trump administration offered no further explanation about the apparent "attack" and did not respond to Middle East Eye’s request for comment. 

Some on social media posted videos and images of black objects flying near the blast site to suggest a missile may have been involved. 

Most of these posts were ridiculed, as other users pointed out that the supposed objects were mostly likely to be birds. 

Chris Palmer, a former ESPN journalist with more than 100k followers on Twitter, claimed the mushroom-like cloud of smoke which formed after the blast meant it was an “atomic bomb”. The tweet was later deleted. 

chris palmer deleted tweet

Jeffrey Lewis, a missile expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, dismissed that theory in comments to online publisher Vice. 

“Those of us who study nuclear weapons can explain over and over again until we are blue in the face that this looks nothing like a nuclear explosion,” Lewis said. 

“People are seizing on the ‘mushroom cloud’, which you see in all kinds of explosions. There are none of the phenomena we would expect to see and the coloration is all wrong.” 

A prominent UK left-wing activist, Aaron Bastani, claimed the blast was caused by a thermobaric weapon, which uses oxygen from the blast zone to generate a high-temperature explosion. 

Thermobaric weapons were used by the UK and US in Afghanistan, and by the Syrian government against rebel forces in the western city of Qusayr in 2013. 

Bastani deleted the tweet, and the theory has been widely condemned. 

Turkish shipment 

On Tuesday, Abbas Ibrahim, Lebanon’s head of General Security, said “the explosion took place in a warehouse of high-explosive material confiscated for years”.

This has led to theories and rumours about from whom the explosive substance was confiscated. 

Some Twitter users have pointed the finger at a supposed Turkish shipment headed for Syria. 

Translation: Construction: The materials that caused the explosion: sodium nitrate seized from a ship carrying ammunition from Turkey to terrorist groups in Syria

This theory has been proven to be false. 

The chemicals originally arrived at Beirut's port on board a Russian-owned cargo vessel flying a Moldovan flag in September 2013.

At the time, the shipping monitoring organisation ShipArrested.com reported that "upon inspection of the vessel by Port State Control, the vessel was forbidden from sailing”.

“Most crew except the master and four crew members were repatriated and shortly afterwards the vessel was abandoned by her owners after charterers and cargo concern lost interest in the cargo."

According to documents posted online and seen by Al Jazeera, the ship's dangerous cargo was then offloaded and placed in hangar 12.

Fireworks storage 

After footage of the first blast emerged, several people were quick to notice firework-like sparks going off simultaneously, shortly before the second blast. 

Lebanon’s general security chief initially denied fireworks being involved. 

“Talking about fireworks is ridiculous, there is no fireworks but high-explosive materials,” Ibrahim said on Tuesday. 

Since then, however, Lebanese authorities have suggested fireworks may well have been stored near the ammonium nitrate. 

Boaz Hayoun, owner of the Tamar Group, an Israeli firm that works closely with the Israeli government on safety and certification issues involving explosives, said that fireworks were likely involved. 

“Before the big explosion, you can see in the centre of the fire, you can see sparks, you can hear sounds like popcorn and you can hear whistles,” Hayoun told The Associated Press. 

“This is very specific behaviour of fireworks; the visuals, the sounds and the transformation from a slow burn to a massive explosion.”