The explosion of ammonium nitrate, which is used as fertilizer and an ingredient in bomb-making, occurred in the port of the Lebanese capital city of Beirut on August 4 caused global concern. This blast, felt in Turkey, Syria, and Israel and heard from 240 km away in Cyprus, is estimated by a team from the University of Sheffield based on analysis of videos to be 1,000 to 1,500 tonnes of TNT equivalent (according to a BBC news report). It has killed more than 150, injured around 6,000, displaced 300,000 people temporarily, flattened much of the port, and destroyed buildings and shattered windows across the city. It is a devastating event in the history of Lebanon which experienced a long civil war from 1975 to 1990— not entirely settled yet — and where sectarian strife erupts too frequently.
Many blasts occur for biological, chemical, and other reasons. Ammonium nitrate explosions, in particular, have happened many times in the past including the Tianjin chemical blast in 2015, the Toulouse chemical factory explosion in 2001, and the Texas City disaster in 1947, resulting in many deaths and injuries. As it appears to date, the Beirut blast was preceded by a fire that subsequently led to two explosions around 35 to 40 minutes apart. Due to a lack of sufficient information on the source of the ignition, it remains unclear whether the initial fire is accidental or intentional; consequently, many doubt it to be accidental, while many others reflect conspiracy theory and say of it to be intentional.
Accidental cause of an initial fire from any external source(s) of heat, which decomposes ammonium nitrate, leading to the explosion is not unlikely. In fact, mere negligence of the port authority—or, more specifically, carelessness of officials responsible for taking care of the site— could by accident result in an initial fire at the warehouse next to the one where ammonium nitrate, a highly combustible explosive material, was stored for around seven years. But the explosion of ammonium nitrate potentially caused by an initial fire is obviously facilitated by sheer negligence of the port and other relevant higher authorities of the state of Lebanon, rendered as an almost failed country associated with corrupt governance practices including compromised accountability at all tiers —from upper to lower.
It is in fact unsurprising that higher authorities neglected the fact that explosive materials had been unsafely stockpiled in a normal warehouse of the Beirut port without any initiative to return, auction, dispose or monitor. It now appears that customs officials sent letters to the judiciary seeking guidance at least six times from 2014 to 2017. Also, internal security officials sent letters several times to successive ministers of the imminent danger of storing 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate—apparently seized from a Moldovan-flagged ship traveling from Georgia to Mozambique and placed by court order in Warehouse 12 at the port in 2014. But, reflecting the utter negligence of people’s safety, no one actually cared about such potential hazards.
Obviously, the intentional cause(s) of the initial fire that triggered the explosion is not improbable too. There are indeed diverse actors within Lebanon and beyond who can intentionally set fire — or blast ammonium nitrate — for realizing ulterior motives. Especially Hezbollah, which has enormous military strengths and significant control in Lebanon for decades, may have responsibility behind the blast probably for delaying the verdict of the UN special tribunal for Lebanon in a case against four Hezbollah cadres for the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and replacing the current power structure of Lebanon in its favor, even though it denied its involvement immediately after the occurrence and there is no conclusive proof for making such a claim at this time.
Israel, which has rival relations with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran, may also be responsible for the event as an outside actor, although there is no evidence of bomb or rocket attacks on the site. In the past, Israel has exchanged fires with Lebanese Shia political group Hezbollah several times especially during the 2000-06 Shebaa Farms conflict in Southern Lebanon, the 2006 Israel- Hezbollah War in Lebanon, northern Israel and the Golan Heights, and the 2020 Israel–Hezbollah clashes at the border between the Israel-occupied Golan Heights and Lebanon. It is not implausible that Israel played a role in the blast by any secret agent in Lebanon for realizing its geopolitical interests in undermining Hezbollah’s influence within Lebanon and beyond, even if it seems somewhat difficult for anyone to set fire on its behalf in the port city where Hezbollah has greater control and the former’s recent behavior points toward a desire to deescalate with its Lebanese rival.
Is there any other actor in the Middle East — or even beyond — responsible for the blast with any close ally in Lebanon? It is surely not unlikely at all; by this time, some have pointed fingers at Iran, which has close ties with Hezbollah and geopolitical interests in Lebanon. Even if Iran may not be directly involved, its indirect engagement with the Beirut explosion especially through Hezbollah is not improbable for the latter’s interests with regard to the noted UN verdict. Also, given the geopolitical complexity in the entire Middle East, the possibility of any other actor(s), within the Middle East and beyond, is not unlikely too. But, unless investigated in a fair manner, all the above possibilities remain as speculations.
Of course, Lebanese authorities have in the meantime detained 25 suspects over the portside blast and an investigation is going on by several teams. Immediately after the explosion, the Lebanese government formed an investigation team, and some other countries such as the USA, France, and England have sent their expert teams to investigate the explosion. Last Monday, the investigation report of the FBI was submitted to Lebanese Judge Fadi Sawan, rendered as controversial but appointed as the lead judicial investigator in the port blast probe. In my opinion, identification of exact reasons can help make efforts to prevent similar future explosions — not only in Lebanon but also in other countries — but it is obviously expected that all investigations are fair and identify causes of the blast exactly.
Regardless of the cause(s) of the blast, one crucial problem in Lebanon that deserves serious attention now is of course misgovernance, a deeply rooted reality that exists in almost all tiers of the government. To say the least, mal-governance practices, which have already caused fragile socio-economic conditions in Lebanon and led to negligence to safe management of dangerous materials in the Beirut port, have in fact played facilitative roles in the explosion too, even though the investigation finally finds it pre-planned. In my opinion, the Lebanese government has an immense responsibility in the days ahead to make sure a fair inquiry and, at the same time, mitigate widespread mal-governance.