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FBI probe: Chemicals that caused Beirut blast only a fifth of original shipment

Investigation doesn’t give reason for discrepancy or share where rest of ammonium nitrate may have gone — adding to suspicions that much of it went missing before port explosion

A drone picture shows the scene of an explosion at the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
A drone picture shows the scene of an explosion at the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

The amount of ammonium nitrate that exploded at Beirut’s port last year in a massive blast was just one-fifth of the original shipment that arrived at the Lebanese capital in 2013, according to an FBI investigation whose findings were published Friday by Reuters.

The probe added to suspicions that most of the stockpile of the chemical, used to make either fertilizer or bombs, went missing or was diverted before the August 2020 blast that rocked Berut and killed more than 200 people.

The FBI probe from last October found that while 2,754 tons of ammonium nitrate had arrived in Lebanon seven years before the blast, only 552 tons went up in flames on the day of the explosion, Reuters reported.

The probe did not provide an explanation for the discrepancy or explain where the rest of the ammonium nitrate may have gone.

The news agency reached out to a senior Lebanese official for comment, and he agreed with the FBI’s findings regarding the quantity of chemicals that exploded.

Many officials in Beirut say privately that much of the shipment was stolen, Reuters said, adding that another theory heard is that not all of the cargo detonated.

Political graffiti is visible in front of the scene of the August 4 explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 9, 2020. (AP/Hussein Malla)

The 2013 shipment was being transferred from Georgia to Mozambique on a Russian-leased cargo ship when the captain says he was instructed to make an unscheduled stop in Beirut, Reuters said, adding that the shipment never ended up leaving from there and the cargo docked at the Lebanese port.

According to an unsourced assessment publicized on Israel’s Channel 13 news last August, Hezbollah may have planned to use the ammonium nitrate stockpile against Israel in a “Third Lebanon War,”

Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has denied that his group stored any weapons or explosives at Beirut’s port.

Ammonium nitrate is used in the manufacture of explosives and is also an ingredient in making fertilizer. It has been blamed for massive industrial accidents in the past, and was also a main ingredient in a bomb that destroyed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. In 2019 reports in Israel claimed that the Mossad had tipped off European intelligence agencies about Hezbollah storing caches of ammonium nitrate for use in bombs in London, Cyprus and elsewhere.

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah gives a speech in the aftermath of a deadly explosion in Beirut, on Friday August 7, 2020 (al-Manar screenshot)

The Channel 13 report noted that “the material that exploded in the port is not new to Nasrallah and Hezbollah.”

It detailed Hezbollah’s previous connections to ammonium nitrate, including incidents in Germany and the UK, both widely reported at the time, in which its agents were reportedly found with substantial quantities of the material. In London in 2015, following a Mossad tip-off, British intelligence found four Hezbollah operatives with 3 tons of ammonium nitrate held in flour sacks, the TV report said, citing foreign reports. A similar process led to the discovery in Germany of Hezbollah operatives with enough ammonium nitrate “to blow up a city,” the report said. Germany subsequently banned Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

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