How a Massive Bomb Came Together in Beirut’s Port

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How a Massive Bomb Came Together in Beirut’s Port

Thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate, a compound used in explosives, leaked from torn bags. In the same shed were jugs of oil, kerosene and hydrochloric acid; 5 miles of fuse on wooden reels; and 15 tons of fireworks – in short, every ingredient needed to build a bomb that could devastate a city.

Late last year, a new Beirut Port security guard came across a broken door and a hole in the wall of a storage shed. He made a frightening discovery:

Thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate, a compound used in explosives, leaked from torn bags. In the same shed were jugs of oil, kerosene and hydrochloric acid; 5 miles of fuse on wooden reels; and 15 tons of fireworks – in short, every ingredient needed to build a bomb that could devastate a city.

Alarmed, the officer, Captain Joseph Naddaf of the state security agency, warned his superiors of what appeared to be an urgent security threat.

But it turned out that other Lebanese officials already knew. Lots of officials.

An investigation by a team of New York Times reporters who conducted dozens of interviews with port, customs and security officials, shipping agents, and other maritime trade professionals revealed how a corrupt system and dysfunctional has failed to respond to the threat while enriching the country’s political leadership through corruption and smuggling.

Previously undisclosed documents explain how many government agencies have posed the responsibility of defusing the situation. Exclusive photographs of the interior of the hangar show the random and ultimately catastrophic handling of the explosive materials. And an analysis of the high-definition video illustrates how the volatile cocktail of combustible substances came together to produce the most devastating explosion in Lebanese history.

In the six years that have passed since the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate arrived at the port of Beirut and unloaded them in hangar 12, repeated warnings have ricocheted throughout the Lebanese government, between the port and the customs, three ministries, the commander of the Lebanese army, at least two powerful judges and, a few weeks before the explosion, the prime minister and the president.

No one took steps to secure the chemicals. So they languished in a warehouse with electricity rigged by the jury and not so much as a smoke detector or a sprinkler.

Last month, they exploded, releasing a mushroom cloud towering above the city and a powerful shock wave that slammed into buildings for miles around, collapsing historic homes, reducing skyscrapers to frames hollow and scattering the streets with the rubbish of countless shattered lives. The explosion killed more than 190 people, injured 6,000 and caused billions of dollars in damage.

The explosion appears to have been triggered by accident, but it was made possible by years of neglect and bureaucratic neglect by a dysfunctional government that subjected public security to the more urgent cases of corruption and graft.

Nowhere is this system perhaps more pronounced than at the port, a lucrative prize carved out of overlapping fiefdoms by Lebanese political parties, who see in it nothing more than a source of personal enrichment, contracts and jobs to distribute to loyalists, and as a clearinghouse for illicit goods.

Government dysfunction had already brought Lebanon to the brink of ruin, with an economy on the brink of collapse, shoddy infrastructure and a persistent anti-government protest movement. The explosion overshadowed all of that, sounding the alarm bells about the failure of the system in a new and frightening way.

The daily activity of transporting goods to and from the port, the Times found, requires a chain of bribes from several parties: to the customs inspector to allow importers to circumvent taxes, to military and other security personnel for not inspecting the cargo, and to officials of the Ministry of Social Affairs for allowing fraudulent claims in a transparent manner – such as that of a 3 month old child who was granted a disability tax exemption on a luxury car.

Corruption is reinforced by dysfunction. The port’s main cargo scanner, for example, has been malfunctioning for years, encouraging the corrupt system of manual cargo inspections.

Hours after the explosion, the president, prime minister and heads of Lebanese security agencies – all of whom had been warned about ammonium nitrate – met at the presidential palace to assess what was wrong . The meeting quickly turned into yelling and beckoning, according to a participant and others briefed on the discussion.

There were plenty of complaints. All of Lebanon’s major security actors and agencies have an interest in the port. None took steps to protect him.

“There has been a management failure from the birth of Lebanon until today,” Judge Ghassan Oueidat, Lebanese Attorney General, said in an interview. “We have failed to lead a country, to lead a homeland.”

And run a port.

An unscheduled port of call

In November 2013, a vessel flying the Moldovan flag and in debt sailed into the port of Beirut carrying 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. The ship, the Rhosus, had been hired by a Russian businessman living in Cyprus and was destined for Mozambique, where a commercial explosives factory had ordered the chemical but never paid for it.

Beirut was not on the itinerary, but the ship’s captain was asked to stop there to collect additional cargo. But after two companies filed a lawsuit claiming they had not been paid for the services they provided to the ship, Lebanese courts banned him from leaving.

The Russian businessman and the ship’s owner simply walked away, leaving the ship and its cargo in the custody of Lebanese authorities.

A few months later, a port security officer alerted customs authorities that the ship’s chemicals were “extremely dangerous” and “posed a threat to public safety”.

Shortly after, a Beirut law firm demanding the repatriation of the Rhosus crew to Russia and Ukraine urged the port’s general manager to remove the cargo to avoid “a maritime disaster”. The law firm attached emails from the ship’s charterer warning of its “EXTREMELY DANGEROUS CARGO” and a 15-page Wikipedia entry listing the “ammonium nitrate disasters.”

Fearing that the dilapidated ship could sink in the port, a judge ordered the port to unload the cargo. In October 2014, he was transferred to Hangar 12, a warehouse dedicated to hazardous materials.

After the August 4 explosion, government prosecutors launched an investigation and have since arrested at least 25 people connected to the port. But the investigation is unlikely to change the culture of blatant mismanagement that set the stage for the explosion, and that is embedded in the port’s operations.

Gateway for contraband

According to port employees, customs officers and shipping and customs officers, small trips around the port without paying bribes, goods pass with little or no control, and failure to comply with the law is the rule, not the exception.

In addition to depriving the government of badly needed revenue, corruption has made the port a gateway for smuggling to the Middle East, allowing weapons and drugs to pass virtually unhindered.

Port security and military intelligence officials responsible for enforcing regulations and ensuring port security are also exploiting their authority for profit, port workers and shipping agents have said, agreeing to what they call euphemistically “freebies” to let shipping containers avoid inspection.

The same goes for customs officers, port and customs officials. The port handles 1.2 million cargo containers per year, but its main cargo scanner has been down or offline for years, they said. This means customs officials inspect containers manually, if at all, and regularly take bribes to approve unregistered, dumped, or misclassified goods.

“Some traders buy certain items and present false receipts,” said Raed Khoury, former Minister of the Economy. “If it costs $ 1 million, they’ll provide a bill for $ 500,000 to pay less tax.”

A customs clearance agent said his small business was spending $ 200,000 a year in bribes to transport goods through the port.

No one complains as long as the money keeps flowing.

A hole in the wall

There was no shortage of security agencies who could have sounded the alarm on what amounted to a deconstructed bomb in Hangar 12.

The intelligence branch of the army and the General Directorate of Security have a strong presence there, and the customs authorities also have a security force.

In 2019, the state security agency also opened a port office, headed by Naddaf, who is now a major. While on patrol last December, he noticed the broken door and hole in the wall of Hangar 12 and his agency investigated.

The immediate concern was not an explosion, but that the chemicals would be stolen by terrorists.

State Security reported the problem to the state attorney’s office, and in May, Oueidat ordered the port to repair the hangar and appoint a supervisor. But no immediate action was taken.

In late July, state security warned the country’s most powerful officials in a report to the High Security Council, which includes heads of Lebanese security agencies, the president and the prime minister.

On August 4, the government finally intervened by sending a team of welders to repair the hangar.

It is not known if their work accidentally started the fire that caused the explosion on the same day, but it is the most likely scenario.

“If there were any welds going on in the area, it would,” said Van Romero, a physics professor and explosives expert at New Mexico Tech. “You have all the ingredients.”

 

Source: New York Times