Updated: September 10, 2020 5:05:05 pm
Written by Ben Hubbard, Maria Abi-Habib, Mona El-Naggar, Allison McCann, James Glanz, Anjali Singhvi and Jeremy White
Late last year, a new security officer at the port of Beirut stumbled upon a broken door and a hole in the wall of a storage hangar. He made a frightening discovery:
Thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate, a compound used in explosives, was spilling from torn bags. In the same hangar were jugs of oil, kerosene and hydrochloric acid; 5 miles of fuse on wooden spools; and 15 tons of fireworks — in short, every ingredient needed to construct a bomb that could devastate a city.
Alarmed, the officer, Capt. Joseph Naddaf of the State Security agency, warned his superiors about 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 and dysfunctional system failed to respond to the threat while enriching the country’s political leaders through bribery and smuggling.
Previously undisclosed documents lay out how numerous government agencies passed off responsibility for defusing the situation. Exclusive photographs from inside the hangar show the haphazard, and ultimately catastrophic, handling of explosive materials. And an analysis of high-definition video illustrates how the volatile cocktail of combustible substances came together to produce the most devastating explosion in Lebanon’s history.
In the six years since the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate had arrived in Beirut’s port and been offloaded into Hangar 12, repeated warnings had ricocheted throughout the Lebanese government, between the port and customs authorities, three ministries, the commander of the Lebanese army, at least two powerful judges and, weeks before the blast, the prime minister and president.
No one took action to secure the chemicals. So they languished in a warehouse with jury-rigged electricity and not so much as a smoke alarm or sprinkler.
Last month, they exploded, unleashing a towering mushroom cloud above the city and a mighty shock wave that punched through buildings for miles around, collapsing historic homes, reducing skyscrapers to hollow frames and scattering streets with the detritus of countless upended lives. The blast killed more than 190 people, injured 6,000 and caused billions of dollars in damage.
The explosion appears to have been set off by accident, but it was made possible by years of neglect and bureaucratic buck-passing by a dysfunctional government that subjugated public safety to the more pressing business of bribery and graft.
Perhaps nowhere is that system more pronounced than at the port, a lucrative prize carved into overlapping fiefs by Lebanon’s political parties, who see it as little more than a source of self-enrichment, contracts and jobs to dole out 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 verge of collapse, shoddy infrastructure and a persistent anti-government protest movement. The explosion overshadowed all that, raising alarm about the system’s inadequacy in a vivid and frightening new way.
The daily business of moving cargo in and out of the port, The Times found, requires a chain of kickbacks to multiple parties: to the customs inspector for allowing importers to skirt taxes, to the military and other security officers for not inspecting cargo, and to Ministry of Social Affairs officials for allowing transparently fraudulent claims — like that of a 3-month old child who was granted a disability exemption from tax on a luxury car.
Corruption is reinforced by dysfunction. The port’s main cargo scanner, for instance, has not worked properly for years, abetting the bribe-ridden system of manual cargo inspections.
Hours after the blast, the president, prime minister and the leaders of Lebanon’s security agencies — all of whom had been warned about the ammonium nitrate — met at the presidential palace to assess what had gone wrong. The meeting quickly devolved into shouting and finger-pointing, according to one attendee and others briefed on the discussion.
There was plenty of blame to go around. All of Lebanon’s main parties and security agencies have a stake in the port. None took action to protect it.
“There has been a failure of management from the birth of Lebanon until today,” Judge Ghassan Oueidat, Lebanon’s chief public prosecutor, said in an interview. “We failed at running a country, running a homeland.”
And running a port.
An Unscheduled Port of Call
In November 2013, a leaking and indebted Moldovan-flagged ship sailed into the Beirut port carrying 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate. The vessel, the Rhosus, had been leased 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 told to stop there to pick up additional cargo. But after two companies filed suit claiming they had not been paid for services they provided to the ship, Lebanese courts barred it 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 the customs authority that the ship’s chemicals were “extremely dangerous” and posed “a threat to public safety.”
Soon after, a Beirut law firm seeking the repatriation of the Rhosus’ crew to Russia and Ukraine urged the port’s general manager to remove the cargo to avoid “a maritime catastrophe.” The law firm attached emails from the ship’s charterer warning about its “EXTREMELY DANGEROUS CARGO” and a 15-page Wikipedia entry cataloging “ammonium nitrate disasters.”
Fearing the dilapidated ship would sink in the harbor, a judge ordered the port to offload the cargo. In October 2014, it was transferred to Hangar 12, a warehouse designated for hazardous materials.
After the Aug. 4 explosion, government prosecutors launched an investigation and have since detained at least 25 people connected to the port. But the investigation is unlikely to change the culture of gross mismanagement that set the stage for the explosion, and which is built into the port’s operations.
Gateway for Contraband
According to port employees, customs officials and shipping and customs agents, little moves in the port without bribes being paid, goods fly through with little or no vetting, and evasion of the law is the rule, not the exception.
In addition to depriving the government of sorely needed revenue, corruption has made the port a gateway for contraband in the Middle East, allowing arms and drugs to slip through virtually unimpeded.
The port security and military intelligence officials charged with enforcing regulations and keeping the port safe also exploit their authority for profit, port employees and shipping agents said, accepting what they euphemistically call “gifts” to let shipping containers avoid inspection.
So do customs officers, port and customs officials said. The port handles 1.2 million cargo containers a year, but its main cargo scanner has been out of order or offline for years, they said. That means that customs officers inspect containers manually, if at all, and routinely take kickbacks to sign off on unregistered, undervalued or miscategorized goods.
“Some traders buy certain items and show false receipts,” said Raed Khoury, a former economy minister. “If it costs $1 million, they will provide an invoice of $500,000 to pay less tax.”
One customs clearing agent said his small company spends $200,000 a year on bribes to move 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 that could have sounded the alarm about what amounted to a deconstructed bomb in Hangar 12.
The army’s intelligence branch and the General Security Directorate have large presences there, and the customs authority also has a security force.
In 2019, the State Security agency also opened a port office, led by Naddaf, who is now a major. During a patrol last December, he noticed the broken door and hole in the wall of Hangar 12 and his agency investigated.
The immediate worry was not an explosion, but that the chemicals would be stolen by terrorists.
State Security reported the issue to the state prosecutor’s office, and in May, Oueidat ordered the port to fix 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 the heads of Lebanon’s security agencies, the president and the prime minister.
On Aug. 4, the government finally acted, sending a team of welders to fix the hangar.
It remains unclear whether their work accidentally lit the fire that caused the explosion that same day but that is the most likely scenario.
“If there was welding going on in the vicinity, that’ll do it,” said Van Romero, a physics professor and explosives expert at New Mexico Tech. “You have all the ingredients.”
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