Beirut explosion wrapped in conspiracies, fueling online sleuths

Debris are seen in the port area after a blast in Beirut, Lebanon, August 10, 2020
(photo credit: HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS)

Within a day of the massive explosion, some people began suggesting theories such as that it was caused by a nuclear weapon.

A horde of explanations has arrived in the wake of the massive explosion in Beirut. Some of the explanations are straight from the conspiracy playbook, while others are more complex. These have to do with trying to track down who produced the ammonium nitrate, when it was unloaded, and whether it was actually kept in a warehouse with other munitions that might have accelerated and exacerbated the devastating August 4 blast.
Predictably, where one stands on the various theories has more to do with whether they like Hezbollah or not than whether the explanation of a warehouse with aging chemicals was the simple explanation for the blast.
Let’s start with the conspiracies and those who intimate that the explosion was not just an accident.
Within a day of the massive explosion, some people began suggesting theories such as that the explosion was caused by a nuclear weapon. Then that moved on to fake videos that added missiles into the actual footage of the explosion. When the missiles and nuclear theory were debunked, the theorist moved on to arguments that asserted noise from a jet plane could be heard during the second lead up to the explosion.
Some people have put memes online that juxtapose Beirut with the 9/11 site in Manhattan, arguing that the same people who believe the explanation that 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate caused the blast in Beirut are the same people who believe that jet fuel burned through the World Trade Center causing it to collapse. The theory apparently insinuates that jet fuel wouldn’t have done that.
This theory is so convoluted that it’s not even entirely clear what the conspiracy is. Are they arguing that the Beirut explosion was real, but 9/11 was an “inside job”? Trying to reason with the theorists doesn’t produce any more logical explanation.

BESIDES THE clear conspiracy theories are those attempting to assert that the explosion can be examined by experts who understand things about explosions, and they can determine if it was only ammonium nitrate combusting or whether fireworks and munitions played a role. For instance, some argue that the chemical isn’t very dangerous if just left in a warehouse forever.
It won’t usually blow up. In fact, there are few other examples of it blowing up just by accident. Cities aren’t being leveled every few years from this – and boats transporting it don’t often sink from massive explosions due to crew smoking near the chemical. 
According to this line of thought, the nitrate served as fuel, but there were other things that accelerated the ignition of the chemicals and caused the explosion to be so large. For instance, fireworks may have been stored in the same warehouse. There is no evidence that they were – and it’s unclear why someone would have put them there.
Another explanation argues that other munitions, perhaps linked to Hezbollah, were stored underneath or in another part of the warehouse. This argument asserts that Hezbollah has a role at Beirut Port and that it is known to have acquired ammonium nitrate in the past. 
David Daoud, for instance, argues in a post at the Atlantic Council that Hezbollah has considerable influence over the port. The Daily Mail in the UK had an article on August 10 arguing that an “explosive expert” determined that the Beirut explosion was caused by “burning military missiles, not ammonium nitrate, because the black cloud was orange, not yellow.”
The question of what Hezbollah knew will never be answered unless an intelligence agency or insider leaks information about their knowledge of the warehouse contents and what they may have done there in the weeks or years prior to the incident.
So far, despite experts talking about the color of the explosion and the size of it, there is no evidence showing Hezbollah members in the warehouse or moving items to or from it. Photos from inside the warehouse allegedly show the bags of nitrate, but nothing else suspicious.

THE FINAL issue that has been raised is the sleuthing to determine how the nitrate got there and where it came from.
Using publicly available information, people have found that the Moldovian-flagged ship Rhosus transported the chemicals from Batumi, Georgia, on the Black Sea, destined for Biera in Mozambique. The ship left port on September 23, 2013. The website Coda Story notes that the nitrate came from a manufacturer called Rustavi Azot in Rustavi, Georgia – but the manufacturer can’t confirm this because the ship was under different ownership at the time. This leaves questions as to whether the chemicals in warehouse 12 were indeed the same ones offloaded from the Rhosus after the ship was detained in 2013 in Beirut. 
It is believed that port authorities and others in Lebanon did have concerns about the chemicals. Customs official Badri Daher apparently made six requests to move the ammonium nitrate – nothing happened. All of this leaves more questions than answers.
This has led to many articles posted online that argue that there may be other issues involved. For instance at Asia Times, an article by Stephen Bryen notes that a fire would be needed to set off the ammonium nitrate. This article also references the reddish smoke and suggests that a “rocket assembly” might have been in the proximity of the warehouse.
Mordechai Kedar, writing at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, also points out several problems with the official narrative. He notes that warehouses closest to the water are used for short-term storage – so why was warehouse 12, which is next to the water, the one where the material sat for so long? He argues that Hezbollah was moving explosives through the port. “What probably happened on August 4 was an explosion of volatile and flammable materials that were incorrectly stored by Hezbollah for at least a day in a metal, non-air-conditioned warehouse,” he wrote.  

THE CLAIMS that Hezbollah was present or offloading weapons would mean that there are not only satellite photos showing material being moved more recently into the warehouse that exploded but that there are probably knowledgeable people in Beirut who saw suspicious activity. But none of these images, leaks or even stories have come out in the various reports.
No one has come forward to say that he or she saw suspicious objects moving to the warehouse that exploded. No photos have emerged of activity at the warehouse. Many of those apartments that face the waterfront would have had a clear view of some of this kind of activity.
In addition, Hezbollah is viewed as a threat not only by Israel but the US as well. It stands to reason that if America had evidence Hezbollah was using the warehouse, then such details would be produced in order to counter Hezbollah’s argument that it knew nothing about the port. So far this has not happened. That means the claims that the warehouse included rockets or other explosives, or was more recently replenished with material, appears as inconsistent as stories about a “jet engine” noise during the explosion.
In fact, the jet engine noise is likely just the roar of flames and air being sucked in to fuel the fire in the warehouse, accelerating the combustion that led to the massive blast. We still don’t know what set off the explosion to begin with. This lack of answers means that many theories will continue to be put forward.

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