One year ago today, the world’s largest non-nuclear explosion tore Beirut apart. Over the course of 365 days, western forensic investigators came and went, Lebanese investigators gathered their findings, conspiracy theories ebbed and flowed, an investigation was launched, a judge was replaced, politicians threw their weight around, trust in the process disappeared. Twelve months later, there are no conclusive answers, and Lebanon has sunk even further into economic and political chaos.
The Cradle had an opportunity to review the investigative files from both western and Lebanese investigative teams. The following are some insights into the timeline, deliberations, and minutae of the investigation process. It’s dry, it’s plodding – it’s sometimes extremely obvious – but it is also a chance to separate some fact from a lot of media fiction surrounding this devastating incident.
Though French and American investigators have determined that the August 4, 2020 Beirut port blast was caused by a fire that erupted in the port’s warehouse 12, details on the source of the ignition ‘spark’ still remain murky. And although the lead Lebanese investigative judge Tareq Bitar is said to have reached preliminary conclusions on these details, in the next few days – a full year after the explosion – he will be running a simulation of the welding works conducted by three Syrian blacksmiths who are believed to have sparked the fire.
The French were the first western investigators to enter the Port of Beirut, arriving two days after the explosion, at the request of Lebanon’s Prosecutor General Ghassan Oweidat. Ten days later, they were joined by British investigators, followed by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A close examination of the contents of these western reports reveals that they did not substantially add much to the local investigation, but rather confirmed the conclusions regarding the explosion reached by the Lebanese investigators.
The French investigators ruled out the possibility of a missile or explosive device causing the blast. This finding agreed with the Lebanese investigation, according to a statement made by Bitar in an interview, which he later retracted. Bitar received a second report from the French after former investigative Judge Fadi Sawwan, who viewed an earlier French report, was removed from the investigation. The current report reportedly differs from the former in that it is more technically precise and detailed. This report, likewise, eliminated the possibility of the Beirut port being targeted by a missile based on soil analysis at the scene, which ruled out external interference (whether by an explosive or a missile) as a cause of the explosion. This report was based on the evidence that the experts collected from the scene two days after the blast.
The American experts, meanwhile, presented a description of what they believe had happened on 4 August in meetings between an FBI team – including explosives expert Christopher Rigopoulos and the head of the FBI office at the US Embassy in Beirut – Lebanese Internal Security Force officers, and explosives experts from the Information Department. A second meeting was held with another member of the FBI team. So, what does the summary of the minutes of these meetings reveal?
According to a summary of the minutes of the meeting viewed by The Cradle, Rigopoulos said that the location of the port’s massive grain silos saved half of Beirut from destruction, acting as a shield that absorbed the worst impact of the blast. The American expert told the Lebanese officers that he contacted the FBI’s main office in the US, where his colleagues were running tests that proved the presence of flammable materials, like fuel for instance, which, when added to ammonium nitrate, transforms into the highly explosive agent Ammonium Nitrate Fuel Oil (ANFO).
Responding to a question posed by the Lebanese officers about his estimation of the explosion’s magnitude, which would have determined whether 2,755 tons of ammonium nitrate actually exploded or not, the American team estimated the materials that exploded weighed no more than 500 tons, around 20 percent of the amount believed to be stored in the warehouse.
Rigopoulos said that the widespread belief that ammonium nitrate does not explode without the addition of other substances is false. He was then asked whether it was possible for firecrackers to have caused the first shockwave – based on technical data that posits that piles of firecrackers may produce a shockwave similar to the RDX explosives. Rigopoulos replied in the affirmative, explaining that flash powder, which is a component of fireworks, could create a shockwave sufficient to detonate ammonium nitrate in its raw state.
Rigopoulos also explained that accumulating ammonium nitrate in piles leads to its total explosion, pointing out that this doesn’t refute the possibility that a portion of the materials had expired and were blown away by the explosion. Rigopoulos spoke about the Oklahoma City bombing, which was caused by ANFO and fuel, in which the explosive was spread out. He also spoke about the damages in Oklahoma City, stating that they were similar to the way the ammonium nitrate was distributed in warehouse 12.
The American experts gave a detailed explanation of the sequence of events of the explosion, starting with the welding works performed on the warehouse’s doors, after which the workers departed. Next, the Beirut Fire Brigade received an alert about a fire in the building and arrived at the port. The firefighters then opened the warehouse door, fanning the flames with fresh oxygen. Rigopoulos said that this was the only logical explanation of the sequence of events and the subsequent explosion. Meeting participants also discussed the statements of citizens who, in the aftermath of the blast, found metal shrapnel on the scene and assumed these came from missiles or military munitions. After the shrapnel was examined however, they were assessed to be metal parts blown apart from warehouse 12 itself.
In other words, the conclusions of the French and the American reports were a deciding factor that led the Lebanese investigative judge to dismiss the hypothesis of an airstrike by an advanced missile. That left two hypotheses: the first, that a criminal or terrorist act in the port was the cause of the explosion. The second, that a welding accident led to a fire that caused the explosion.
Although Judge Bitar has announced that the investigation is leaning toward one of these hypotheses, informed sources have revealed that the welding simulation organized by the Judge and the Information Branch – using the same materials that were stored in the warehouse – is intended to settle matters about who or what ignited the first spark.
This answer could decisively steer the direction of the three-tiered investigation: How did the ammonium nitrate enter the port of Beirut; and was it a coincidence or premeditated? Who unloaded it and stored it in warehouse 12, and was that mere coincidence or was it deliberate? Did the ammonium nitrate explode because of the welding, or did someone start a fire that caused the explosion? The answers to these questions will ultimately reveal what really happened in Beirut’s port, and potentially silence accusations against Judge Bitar that he has politicized the investigation.
Lebanon’s many and varied political actors, including the Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah, have occasionally cast doubt on the investigative judge’s performance and intent. These doubts have emerged because of what appears to be Bitar’s selective exclusion of certain politicians and security officials from suspicion and prosecution – particularly the current Commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) General Joseph Aoun and former Director of Army Intelligence Toni Mansour. Lebanese law stipulates that all explosive materials in the country fall under the jurisdiction of the LAF, so why is the army commander, under whose watch the port blast took place, not a primary focus in this investigation?
Many Lebanese also question why prominent officials that include former justice, defense, interior, and prime ministers who held office after the ammonium nitrate arrived in Lebanon, are not on Bitar’s roster of interrogations.
The investigative judge is also accused of kowtowing to foreign agendas that seek to use the blast to exploit Lebanon’s current political and economic crisis. These accusations are countered by associates and colleagues of Bitar, who emphasize his lack of affiliation to any political party, adding that if the Judge had a premeditated intent to target one political side, he wouldn’t have refused the position of judicial investigator of Lebanon’s Higher Judicial Council the first time it was offered to him in August 2020. Bitar accepted the position in February 2021 following a court decision to remove Judge Fadi Sawwan from his duties investigating the Beirut blast.