The search for a culprit after Beirut blast

Who bears responsibility for the deadly port explosions, and what are the global implications?

Damaged Beirut Port area, August 17 (photo credit: ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS / REUTERS)
Damaged Beirut Port area, August 17
Beirut is recovering. People are snapping selfies near the ruined port where explosions at a warehouse killed more than 150 people and wounded thousands in early August. Now Lebanon wants more support from the international community.
Looming in the background is Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist group, which has distanced itself from the ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse that caused the blasts. While the Lebanese initially protested in the wake of the mass killing, they have now become quieter, lest the country tip into greater instability and chaos. At stake are interests from Moscow to Riyadh and Istanbul to Damascus.
Slowly, port operations have moved to Tripoli in northern Lebanon, a city known to be more of a “Sunni stronghold” than southern Lebanon’s Shi’ite villages and Beirut’s Maronites, or the Druze villages that dot areas just south of the capital. It is unknown what the long-term consequences of the economic changes will be or how Lebanon will be bailed out.
The country needs some $90 billion, and international organizations are concerned about Lebanon becoming a sinkhole for more investment. After all, Lebanon should be a profitable state because its diaspora is fabulously wealthy and many of its communities seem to enjoy largesse from different foreign powers. In the most clichéd simplicity: The Saudis and Turkey seek to buy up the Sunnis, Iran backs the Shi’ites, Damascus has its friends, and France supports the Christians.
The real question plaguing anyone who wants to look beneath the cliché is to ask what happened on August 4, when explosions rocked Beirut, tearing through the port and buildings and causing damage for miles. But asking what happened also seems to conjure up more clichés: Let those sleeping dogs lie. Don’t poke the bear.
This is because what is known about the blast does not add up. A warehouse with ammonium nitrate exploded. This has happened in the past. In 1917 a ship blew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, killing 1,950 people. In 1921, an explosion of ammonium sulphate in Oppau, Germany, claimed 565. Ammonium nitrate blew up in Toulouse, France, in 2001, killing 31 people. The explosions in Germany and Canada yielded more tonnage than the one in Beirut.
RIDING BY the ruins of a traditional Lebanese house, August 14. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)RIDING BY the ruins of a traditional Lebanese house, August 14. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)
However, the Beirut blast is still relatively unique. In short: Ammonium nitrate doesn’t blow up and destroy cities every day. In fact, it almost never does.
Since the massive explosion, many articles have been written, yet only a few have sought to establish what might have happened that led to the explosions. There are some reasons for this.
Some do not want to know. They prefer the easy answer of “a warehouse where ammonium nitrate was stored for seven years exploded due to a mistake.” Don’t mention Hezbollah. Don’t mention that the terror movement has sought ammonium nitrate all over the world and previously stored it in Europe. Don’t mention that Hezbollah has even threatened to target similar chemical storage facilities in Israel to cause exactly the kind of explosions that tore through Beirut.
The usual process of cover-ups and irresponsibility in Beirut provide the plausible deniability needed by the government of Michel Aoun, which is backed by Hezbollah. Aoun came to power after Hezbollah hijacked the presidency, which is reserved for a Christian, and got its Christian ally into power. Back in 2005 Hezbollah had assassinated the former Sunni prime minister of Lebanon, Rafic Hariri.
The UN tribunal investigating the murder for many years was due to rule on a verdict the same week as the Beirut explosion. Instead, they postponed the decision for two weeks and then only fingered one Hezbollah operative, clearing the names of another two. A fourth Hezbollah member was already dead but was suspected of being the mastermind.
Hezbollah didn’t act alone to kill Hariri; it would have had to obtain approval from Tehran and probably Damascus as well. The code leading to Hezbollah was cracked by following its phone network, the same one that it rioted to keep in 2008, coming to control parts of Beirut. The man who uncovered the network was Major Wissam Eid of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces Information Branch. He was murdered. All this is well-known.
Iran and its allies have a habit of doing things that are flagrant violations of international law right in front of everyone. Iran attacked Saudi Arabia with drones and cruise missiles in September 2019. It mined six ships in the Gulf of Oman in May and June 2019. It downed a civilian jet liner in January 2020, denied it, then claimed it was an “accident.”
It’s not as if Tehran hides all this. Hezbollah openly stockpiles 150,000 rockets in Lebanon, illegally. No other country has a Hezbollah around its neck, blackmailing its parliament and maintaining an extralegal terrorist army. But Lebanon, hollowed out and forced to sleepwalk through history with Hezbollah at the controls, does not want to ask the tough questions, not about Hariri or about Beirut in 2020.
A LOOK at the footprints that led to the Beirut blast reveals a series of articles explaining why the explosion might have been accidental but also why suspicions remain. Reuters, which has expertise in investigative reporting on shipping, examined the path the ship took that brought the ammonium nitrate that caused the explosion. On August 11, we learned of this murky story.
It begins with the Moldovan-flagged MV Rhosus, a heap of a ship that limped into Beirut in 2013. Inspectors in Spain had already flagged the ship for lack of seaworthiness. Reuters went to 10 countries to track down what happened. The ship brought 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate to the Port of Beirut. “Those linked to the shipment” all denied knowledge of the cargo’s original owner, though it came from a Georgian fertilizer maker. The ship was supposedly bound for Mozambique.
The rusty vessel got the cargo in September 2013. According to Reuters, the ship’s captain was told by a Russian businessman, Igor Grechushkin, to make an “unscheduled stop in Beirut to take on extra cargo.”
The Rhosus sailed into Beirut in November, the cold season. Detained in Beirut because of its poor condition, the vessel sat there for years and its cargo was moved to the shore.
“Creditors accused the ship’s legal owner, listed as a Panama-based firm, of abandoning the vessel.” The miserable heap sank in 2018. That was one problem gone.
The cargo was worth only $700,000, Reuters says, and the ship was uninsured. Its Russian captain, Boris Prokoshev, lives in Sochi today. In Mozambique, Reuters found the firm Fabrica de Explosivos Mocambique, which reportedly ordered the cargo. However, the firm had said it would only pay if the cargo got to Mozambique. It had placed an order via London, from a shadowy company selling fertilizer from former Soviet countries.
Grechushkin, the businessman, has been questioned in Cyprus. Lebanese investigators asked police in Cyprus for permission to speak with him on August 6, according to reports. There the trail seems to end. All the multiple layers of companies linked to the ship, those which had a role, seem to have vanished or cannot be found. And no one seems to care.
It is this lack of caring about a ship and its cargo that doesn’t add up. There should be a money trail related to the cargo and its associated vessel. When ships don’t reach their intended destination there are court cases and disputes. Even in the world of shipping, where shell companies registered in small countries like Panama re-flag ships to a third country like Liberia, there is still a money trail.
A LOCAL looks at an image of her injured husband, August 14. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)A LOCAL looks at an image of her injured husband, August 14. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)
Die Welt next enters our story. The German newspaper reported on August 20 that Hezbollah purchased ammonium nitrate that was possibly linked to the storage in Beirut. The paper obtained exclusive information from Western intelligence showing the terrorist group bought “large quantities of the dangerous substance.” This means Hezbollah had purchased similar quantities and asked for delivery of ammonium nitrate “closely related to the material detonated in Beirut.”
Yet it is not known if the shipment is the same or a different one. The amounts delivered include 270 tons in July 2013, another 270 tons in October 2013 and then more in April 2014, Die Welt reported. These shipments involved large sums of money, some $500,000 in deliveries in those two years. The total amount of imported cargo would have exceeded 1,000 tons.
Then came the August 21 discoveries of links between a shadowy bank and Iran. These reports were compiled by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). They point to the vessel being owned by someone other than the Russian, asserting “Grechushkin only chartered the Rhosus.” This report says the ship was being leased via an offshore company in the Marshall Islands.
“Documents show that the true owner of the Rhosus was Charalambos Manoli, a Cypriot shipping magnate. Manoli denies this, the report says. The Russian had leased the ship through a company called Teto Shipping, which had in turn chartered the ship “from a company in Panama, Briarwood Corporation, according to official records from Moldova’s Naval Agency.”
The investigation revealed that a 2012 document showed that “Briarwood belonged to Manoli.” If this is confusing, it might be because it was designed that way in order to obscure the paper trail.
Now Cyprus enters the picture, with stories of a “Cypriot businessman with ties to a bank used by the Hezbollah terror group.” Exit the Russians. Enter the African ties, a “hidden tycoon” and a “loan from a notorious bank.” That bank is in Tanzania. Tanzania is near Mozambique; however, the bank’s ties might have been with Iran, which backs Hezbollah. Questions now emerge about whether some of the ammonium nitrate was taken from the warehouse in the years before the explosion, which would point to shadowy hands manipulating the warehouse.
OCCRP asserts that at the time of the ship’s voyage to Beirut, “Manoli was in debt to FBME, a Lebanese-owned bank that lost multiple licenses for alleged money-laundering offenses, including helping the Shia militant group Hezbollah and a company linked to Syria’s weapons of mass destruction.” The report says that Manoli had taken a loan to buy a different ship called the Sakhalin and was going to sell the Rhosus.
“There is no evidence linking Manoli’s debt to FBME with the circumstances surrounding the Rhosus’s last journey.” This quote complicates the story further because it is unclear who owned the ship. Manoli told OCCRP that Lebanese authorities “confiscated the man’s [Grechushkin’s] ship over there and he declared bankruptcy... What’s the responsibility of this man [Grechushkin] if Lebanese authorities didn’t properly store the fertilizer?”
The report also alleges that the ship was ordered to Beirut to take trucks on board to help pay for passage through the Suez Canal. A truck damaged the deck, after which the idea to load them stopped.
There was a court case in Lebanon linked to the ship during which the captain and three crew members were effectively stranded on board for 10 months. There is another case linked to the ammonium nitrate. After the chemicals sat in Beirut for more than a year, a company called Savaro in Ukraine “hired a Lebanese lawyer to petition a local court to inspect the quality and quantity of the ammonium nitrate.” Around 1,900 one-ton bags were found to be “ripped and had their contents spilling out.”
The report then notes that the Lebanese Customs Department asked the Lebanese Army to take control of the chemicals. That never happened. By July 2020, Lebanese security reportedly “warned that there were serious security flaws at the facility” where the nitrate was kept. A door was open and a hole in a wall of the warehouse was found. More concerning, it seems some of the ammonium nitrate might have gone missing. European intelligence sources “said the size of the explosion was equivalent to as little as 700 to 1,000 tons of ammonium nitrate.”
The OCCRP report adds complexity to an already tangled web of questions. It seeks to show that the bank linked to the alleged owner was also linked to Iran and Hezbollah. It also seeks to show that the firm acquiring the chemicals in Mozambique also had questionable connections. Furthermore, it leaves questions about whether some of the ammonium nitrate was taken out of the warehouse.
Linked to the other reports showing Hezbollah stockpiled ammonium nitrate in Europe and imported it to Lebanon, this would appear to mean that if Hezbollah wanted the chemicals, and if Hezbollah had infiltrated the Port of Beirut, it could have just quietly stolen the bags from the warehouse.
LEBANESE PRESIDENT Michel Aoun meets with Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, at the presidential palace in Baabda on July 15. (Dalati Nohra/Handout via Reuters)LEBANESE PRESIDENT Michel Aoun meets with Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, at the presidential palace in Baabda on July 15. (Dalati Nohra/Handout via Reuters)
NEVERTHELESS, THERE is no smoking gun, no evidence that Hezbollah sought to reroute the ship to Beirut and conspired to have the nitrate offloaded and the ship detained. The main question appears to be why such a high volume of the volatile chemical sat around for years, and why no one seemed to care. That the Rhosus was abandoned may not be as odd as it seems. Hundreds of tanker ships are scrapped every year, along with many cargo ships.
For instance, there were seven ships sitting abandoned off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in 2019. This means that the murky paper trail for the numerous companies involved with the ship is not evidence enough of anything nefarious. But the lack of concern for the ammonium nitrate and apparent lack of interest by anyone to recover it or move it raise questions.
Why would Hezbollah be seeking to import this product and also stockpiling it if it had access to a large supply at a warehouse at the port? Obviously the product was desired, and yet oddly, when it got to Beirut no one else wanted it. This doesn’t make sense.
If days before arriving, companies around the world – including terrorist groups – were seeking ammonium nitrate, why is it that days after arriving, no one seemed to care that the chemical was there. Moreover, why was it abandoned for years? That the ship was abandoned and bankruptcy was declared is in line with how international shipping works. That suspicious banks and firms trade in ammonium nitrate and abandon ships is not in itself unique.
However, the sudden lack of interest in all those tons of ammonium nitrate highlights the largest mystery: No one seems to have owned the chemical or made any attempts to take possession of it after 2013.
The answer to that mystery, like the answer to who ordered the killing of Hariri, will continue to haunt Lebanon and the region.