This article was originally published by the Foundation for American Security and Freedom, an institute organized by former Ambassador John Bolton.
A few minutes after 6 pm on Tuesday, Aug. 4, a fire broke out in Hangar 9 of Beirut’s port. Videos from the first moments afterwards show black smoke, indicative of a grease or other material fire. A few minutes later, a second, fairly large explosion (assuming there was a small explosion which caused the first fire) expanded the blast area into Hangar 12 and set the stage for the third and final explosion, which occurred about 20 minutes after the first and about 30 seconds after the second.
What we know about the blasts
We have no idea what caused the first fire or blast, if there even was a first blast; none of the videos so far provided captured those first few seconds. But the remaining smoke was moderate and blackish, consistent with an industrial fire. It appears some small munitions, or some claim fireworks, began erupting soon after, causing a whitish-grey smoke. One video, apparently taken from an adjacent building, shows crackling and popping occurring before a much larger second blast. This could be fireworks, as the government has claimed.
The second explosion was much more significant, and produced thick whitish-grey “dirty” smoke, consistent with some high explosives and even rocket fuel. Several witnesses of the second explosion insisted at first they heard airplane engines, but closer examination by analysis of several videos and the commentary by eyewitnesses themselves ultimately place the source of that roaring sound within the fire, further suggesting that rocket engines were being set off rather than planes flying overhead.
Smaller continuing explosions persisted, with white flashes seen in and above the building. While fireworks could still not be ruled out, after the second explosion, the thick dirty grey smoke, whooshing airplane-type sound rather than predominant whistling, the absence of a spectacular airborne display of streamers and sparkling explosions spraying in every direction as would be consistent with firework explosions (since the roof had already been blown off the building at that time) all seem to suggest rockets, mortars and missiles of some sort rather than fireworks igniting.
About 20 seconds after the second blast, the escalating fire dramatically ramped up, as did the resulting pace of white flashes in and above the building, which seem to be consistent with small-caliber explosives, such as mortars and rockets.
In short, something much more explosive, which produces white-grey dirty smoke and a sound like a roaring aircraft engine, produced the second explosion, of which we know nothing else at this point since the government is sticking closely to the “fireworks” explanation. That second explosion seemed to set in motion what eventually triggered the third and final explosion. In fact, it is clear that the Lebanese government is determined to not have the cause of this second explosion known or discussed.
About 28 seconds after the second blast, during which the flames and white flashes intensified, more “humming” and a roaring crescendo can be heard in the videos, suggesting missile engines roaring, and then a final round of white-flash explosions popping off, followed suddenly by a massive eruption — the third and final explosion.
Still-frame photos of the exact moment of the massive explosion show that the entire warehouse — this time Hangar 12 — simultaneously and uniformly detonated.
The magnitude of the blast was great enough, and the ambient humidity high enough, to produce a perfect Wilson [transient condensation mushroom] cloud.
While some have said it might be a fuel-air blast, the condensation halo vaporized instantly, as is consistent with a Wilson cloud rather than fuel-air explosion. Also, the cloud did not have the initial yellow flash consistent with a fuel-air blast. It was in fact a pressure wave, according to physicists, not a shock wave such as a fuel-air bomb would produce. Thankfully, since the death toll would have been astronomically higher had it been a shock wave.
Later analysis of the blast effects indicated that it was equivalent to a 1.1 kiloton explosion, comparable to a small tactical nuclear blast, about 1/11th the size of the Hiroshima 12 to 15 kiloton nuclear blast.
Ahead of the Wilson cloud was a massive pressure wave spreading throughout the city, and rising behind the Wilson cloud is a broad and towering column of thick, reddish brown smoke, generally indicative of a concentrated and high-quality bomb-grade ammonium nitrate explosion. Fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate tends to explode with more blackish, oily smoke.
2,700 tons of ammonium phosphate
The Lebanese government claims that over 2,700 tons of ammonium phosphate was stored in Hangar 12, confiscated from a Moldovan-flagged cargo vessel, the Rhosus, in 2013. A 1.1 kiloton blast would be almost exactly equivalent to what 2,700 tons (2.7 kilotons) of ammonium nitrate would produce, assuming that it was of military and not fertilizer grade (the conversion rate to TNT of the highest-grade ammonium nitrate is 0.4 percent). Nitropril, which was seen to be marked on some of the bags in images which have since appeared, is the densely porous, prilled (granularized) grade of ammonium nitrate used for the explosive version, not fertilizer. So this is also consistent with bomb-grade ammonium nitrate being the cause of the last, massive blast.
It must be noted though that ammonium nitrate cannot combust by itself. Indeed, the markings on ammonium nitrate containers in the United States bear the following safety label: “May explode under confinement and high temperature, but not readily detonated. May explode due to nearby detonations.” And indeed, Lebanon’s interior minister, Mohammad Fahmi, also noted this on August 6.
This is why getting to the bottom of the second explosion is so critical, and why it is so important to press the Lebanese government on producing more information on the materials that caused this second explosion — which were likely munitions and missiles. Without it, there would never have been a catastrophe.
As a final note, there have been commentators claiming that the final blast looks more like a fuel-air blast from a shaped explosive charge, namely HMX (Octagen, or C4H8N8O8) missile fuel that accidentally detonated. The survival of the grain silos is raised as a sign that the charge which exploded was shaped upward — again consistent with a warhead pointed toward the sky. The smoke, however, of the third explosion was a dark reddish-rust color typical of an ammonium nitrate explosion, and the vast layer of dust left on everything in the area is typical residue of ammonium nitrate.
About the grain elevator: it survived on the far side, but not the side facing the explosion. It is quite possible that the grain in the silos absorbed the kinetic energy of the blast, much like sand or water do. Still, this alternative explanation cannot be ruled out — indeed it is likely — that such high explosive material, used for rocket fuel or extremely high-intensity explosions, was the source of the second blast (which appears to have been in Hangar 9, and was whiter and quite substantial in its own right — certainly consistent with a missile blowing up), and was the ongoing source of the escalating fire and roaring, and the trigger for the third, massive explosion.
The final blast destroyed central Beirut, damaged buildings 10 miles away and sent pressure waves 20 miles away to the surrounding Lebanese mountains. It was heard in northern Israel, and even clearly in Cyprus, 125 miles away. Hundreds were killed, several thousand wounded and 300,000 left homeless as a result of the blast.
Some effects of the blast are only beginning. Eighty percent of Lebanon’s grain supply (Lebanon’s strategic reserve) was incinerated, and the port through which most of Lebanon’s imported food arrived has been rendered dysfunctional. Lebanon relied on imported food for 90 percent of its needs, so this is a disaster which yet will unfold. Beirut port is the entry point for 70 percent of all imports. So Lebanon faces a grave logistical challenge — few operating docks — in finding a structure to bring in seaborne loads of goods and foodstuffs.
Hangars 9 and 12
Regarding hangars 9 and 12, Lebanese are universal in their belief that Hezbollah rules the critical areas of the port as a government within a government. As head of the program on studying terrorism in Israel’s Herzliyah Center, Mordechai Kedar has noted that there are many videos of Hezbollah officials bragging about their “Fatima Gate,” a nickname for their independent, clandestine port structure in Beirut completely out of the control and visibility of the Lebanese government. In those videos, it is noteworthy that Hezbollah bragged that “the Fatima Gate” in Beirut port is where they can come and go at will, import and export freely, and smuggle unharassed, not only without interference by customs authorities but often without their knowledge.
Kedar believes that the hangar 9 and 12 structures are the noted “Fatima Gate.” They are closest to the water, meaning they are the prime warehouses for unloading ships without being detected by satellite or aerial reconnaissance, and are very close to the exit of the port as well. Lebanese port workers themselves regarded Hangar 12 as an off-limits Hezbollah zone.
These two warehouses, being the closest to the waterline, were clearly the most sought-after structures for rapid movement and transfer, not long-term storage. Indeed, the port authority asked that the ammonium nitrate be removed to more distant storage sheds, but those requests were met with silence.
The Lebanese government, which has been diligent and fast in releasing information which builds its narrative (outlined below), has said nothing of the provenance of the ostensible fireworks, and has provided no other information in connection with the first blast/fire and the second blast. It has focused exclusively on the final blast — and with determination has suppressed discussion of anything else — leaving us no information to analyze regarding everything that preceded the final blast.
The official version is that a ship, the Moldovan-flagged Rhosus, was sailing in 2013 from the Crimea to Mozambique to deliver fertilizer or explosives for mining. The ship encountered mechanical difficulties (although some conflicting reports said it lacked the funds to pay the Suez Canal fees) and had to take to port in Beirut. The Lebanese government saw the papers were not in order and confiscated the ship. The owner of the ship, the Cyprus-based Russian oligarch Igor Grechushkin, abandoned the ship and the cargo and left the crew stranded. Ship crews are abandoned disturbingly often, but much less so with cargoes.
The ammonium nitrate on the ship was offloaded and placed in Hangar 12. After seven years of legal wrangling and bureaucratic back and forth, the cargo remained stored in Hangar 12, until it exploded on Tuesday. The crew, which was stranded on the ship for several months, was eventually flown home.
The abandoned ship was moved 1,000 feet up the pier in 2015, where it sank in 2018 after springing a leak, the New York Times reported on Friday.
What we know about the ship is the official Lebanese government version, which has not been independently verified. And indeed, it took only a day or two before Lebanese journalists began accessing records and former officials, and began uncovering additional information of interest, although a good bit of it is impossible to independently verify.
The popular and respected Lebanese journalist Marcel Ghanem, on his TV show, Sar el-Waet, on Aug. 6 interviewed a retired prominent, perhaps chief, Beirut port inspector, who had been involved in the whole Rhosus affair since the beginning, and had been the one to debrief its crew. His tale was riveting, but again, is in need of independent verification.
Notably, the interview could cost the former inspector his life, so it is rather surprising that he openly recounted what he did. He claims he was the inspector who personally interviewed the ship captain, and the story he tells is shocking and worth summarizing here:
•The ship’s captain, Boris Prokoshev, said the ship was not seaworthy, and nor was he. The inspector noted the captain was consistently drunk. But both the captain and the inspector understood that this was why both this ship and captain were chosen; no respectable ship owner or captain would have undertaken this mission. The whole crew were desperadoes, essentially. In short, there was something untoward about the very nature of the shipment from the start.
•When the ship passed the Bosphorus Strait, the Turkish transit authorities stopped it because they worried the ship was not seaworthy. Upon boarding, they inspected and saw the shipment, at which point they moved to seize it to prevent Bosphorus passage as a grave hazard. The head of Bosphorus maritime transit then received a phone call from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s officer, saying that Erdoğan personally requested it be released and allowed Bosphorus passage. The head of Bosphorus transit was so upset by this — fearing it could be a terror ship that could even be used in Istanbul — that he tweeted his disapproval as a self-protective maneuver.
•The ship, being unseaworthy, used its “SoS” status as cover and made straight for Beirut, not Cyprus which was closer, where its owner was and where the ship had previously been flagged (before Moldova). Once in Beirut, the official story was established that the ship could not continue, and the cargo was essentially bought out by unknown actors. That is why the ship owner, an oligarch who did not build his reputation on being a pushover, never launched a court challenge over the confiscation of the ammonium nitrate by the Beirut port.
•The Beirut port inspector had his team launch a quiet investigation as to where the money came from for the purchase. They concluded it led back to Iran.
•Also, receiving no cooperation from the government regarding the details of the ammonium nitrate, they brought in a chemist to see what grade of ammonium nitrate they were dealing with. The tests showed it was the highest possible grade — not the sort used in fertilizer, and not even a common level of quality for mining explosives.
•They, the port authority and others started getting ever more nervous about this, suspecting foul play, and many times asked for further information about the shipment, not only in terms of asking it to be removed, but also information about it. Their letters and queries were always met with cold silence.
In short, the Lebanese government is focused exclusively on the ammonium nitrate, and ignores completely the causes and sources (likely munitions and missile fuel) of the second explosion which was the essential component in turning a small accident into a vast human tragedy. To reinforce its narrative, it has taken the odd tale of an unseaworthy ship crewed by derelicts and spun a tale of incompetence, not nefarious behavior, as the only story worth contemplating. A story which, coincidentally, lays the bulk of the blame on the previous government under Saad Hariri.
Dr. David Wurmser is director of the Center for Security Policy’s Project on Global Anti-Semitism and the US-Israel Relationship. He is a former US Navy Reserve intelligence officer with extensive national security experience working for the State Department, the Pentagon, Vice President Dick Cheney and the National Security Council.