How is it possible that 2,750 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate was stored in the heart of Beirut for several years? DER SPIEGEL recounts the missteps, corruption and incompetence that led to the August blast.
On August 4, sensors in Bermuda registered a violent explosion, with values far higher than civilian detonations normally reach. The ultrasound waves were observed in Tunisia, Kazakhstan and on the Cape Verde islands. Instruments in Germany likewise recorded a change in atmospheric pressure.
The epicenter of the concussion was in the Lebanese capital city of Beirut, in a dilapidated storage depot down at the port. Hangar 12.
On that day in August, as much as 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded shortly after 6 p.m., when a fire raised temperatures in the warehouse above the combustion point. Seconds prior there had been a first explosion of other materials in the warehouse that blew off its roof. The second explosion of the ammonium nitrate pulverized what was left.
The blast wave laid waste to half of the city, injuring at least 6,500 people. More than 200 people lost their lives in the explosion.
Minerva Chartouni hurried to her window after the first explosion. She had been living in her fifth-floor apartment for the last 30 years, right behind the multi-lane urban highway – and only a few hundred yards from the port. She could see Hangar 12 from her balcony.
Chartouni was 69 years old and the mother of two adult children, Sandra and Joseph. Chartouni had worked many years for Middle East Airlines, but was now retired. Her children describe her as a strong and uncompromising woman who was intimidated by no one. On the evening of the blast, she was alone at home. Sandra, who lives with her, was at their vacation home in the mountains with Minerva Chartouni’s granddaughter.
Chartouni stared out at the column of smoke filling up the sky outside, as she would later tell her children. She first tried to call her daughter, but couldn’t reach her. Instead, she sent a text telling Sandra not to come back to Beirut, but to stay in the mountains for safety.
She then called her son Joseph, an architect. He heard his mother say: “It’s going to explode. “Hide!” Then, the call broke off.
Joseph arrived at his mother’s apartment about an hour later. The door had been blown off its hinges and Minerva Chartouni was lying in the hallway, surrounded by bricks and other rubble. Her legs were fractured in several places and she was suffering from cuts and scrapes. But she was conscious.
Joseph Chartouni took a photo of his mother with his smartphone and sent it to the Red Cross via WhatsApp, hoping for instructions on transporting his injured mother.
When no answer came, Joseph picked up his mother and carried her the five floors down to the street with the help of a friend. The two carefully set her into the car and headed north to a hospital around 40 kilometers from Beirut. They had heard that the clinic in Jbeil was undamaged and still accepting patients.
Minerva Chartouni was operated on several times, with the doctors setting her broken legs and tending to her other injuries. After six days, her daughter picked he up. Sandra Chartouni recalls that the doctor warned her about bleeding in her mother’s head and said she should take it easy.
Sandra Chartouni took her mother to their mountain home to nurse her back to health. On August 12, eight days after the explosion, Minerva Chartouni pointed to a spot on her head and said: “When I touch here, it hurts.”
“Should I call an ambulance?” her daughter ask. But she didn’t get an answer.
Minerva Chartouni is one of around 200 people who were killed in this catastrophe – one which got its start seven years ago.
2013: A ship enters port – full of explosive ammonium nitrate
Minerva Chartouni loved her balcony. From here, she could look out over warehouses, depots and cranes to the long breakwater that extended like a finger into the Mediterranean.
It is possible that seven years before the blast, she may even have seen from her balcony a small ship sailing into the Port of Beirut on Nov. 21, 2013. The Rhosus was on its way to Mozambique, in southeastern Africa, carrying 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, intended for a company that produces explosives.
Because the ship wasn’t carrying enough money on board to pay for passage through the Suez Canal, the Rhosus stopped in Beirut to take on more cargo.
The ship, though, was hardly seaworthy. A small and aging vessel built in 1986, it had had many different owners and many different names – and repeated checks found numerous defects. It added up to a recipe for fiasco: a ramshackle ship, a dangerous cargo and a derelict state – with a port that was synonymous with corruption, as everyone in Lebanon knew.
The chain of responsibility at the port is intentionally murky. There is the customs office, run by the chief customs official. Above him is the Higher Council of Customs, which brings together all the parties and is theoretically charged with overseeing the customs office. Then there is the port authority, which maintains an overview of all the ships and their cargos in addition to taking care of port administration and monitoring the companies working there. Finally, there are a number of different security agencies, each of which is in competition with the other.
Everybody in the country knows how corrupt port operations are. But in places where lots of people profit from corruption, few have much incentive to do anything about it.
Riad Kobaissi has made it his life’s mission to combat this corruption. The 39-year-old is one of the best-known investigative journalists in the country and head of the investigative team at the private broadcaster Al Jadeed TV, which belongs to a businessman. Kobaissi says he is motivated by his anger over the ubiquitous criminality and the widespread indifference.
The broadcaster and its owner have frequently been the target of threats, lawsuits and attacks, such as the hand grenade that was thrown at the studio on one occasion. Another time, an angry mob was waiting in front of the owner’s villa and threatening to set it on fire.
The Rhosus was already been moored in port on Nov. 26, 2013, when Kobaissi had an appointment with Shafiq Merhi, the chief of customs at the time, making him one of the most powerful men in the port. Kobaissi wanted to speak with him about corruption. Merhi, though, cancelled the interview at the last minute, whereupon Kobaissi, according to his version of events, climbed onto the roof of his car with a megaphone and demanded that Merhi fulfill his commitment. In response, Merhi sent out security to beat up Kobaissi and his cameraman.
When Riad Kobaissi speaks about the port, he is full of both passion and outrage. And he laughs frequently – at the brazenness and the lunacy. He speaks quickly and in a surprisingly high-pitched voice given his bulky stature. He sounds more like a police detective than a journalist.
One thing that he has learned from his reporting: The port’s labyrinthine history has helped boost corruption. Starting in 1960, it was in the hands of an operating consortium made up of wealthy businessmen. When their concession expired in 1990, the country’s political parties – which had grown up as militias in the recently ended civil war – took over control of the port. None of the parties was powerful enough to dominate operations and none was prepared to renounce its influence, a situation that led to the 1993 founding of the Transitional Commission, a provisional solution intended to operate the port until a permanent understanding could be reached.
But that never happened. And still hasn’t.
Indeed, in both its provisional nature and in the manner in which power is divided up, the port is essentially a microcosm of the country itself.
Since Lebanon’s founding 100 years ago, it has never managed to find a united identity. It has always been something of an experiment: a small country born out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire that preceded it. It has all the trappings of a country, including a flag, a national anthem and institutions. But behind this façade, Lebanon disaggregates into confessional blocks of power, whose leaders view each other with a deep mistrust that occasionally erupts into fighting. The only thing they seem to agree on is that Lebanon is there to be sucked dry.
Fully 18 religious clans rule Lebanon or parts of it, among them the Maronite Christians, the Greek Orthodox, the Druse, the Shiites and the Sunnis. Posts and perks are divided up according to a proportional system, with aptitude and competence being but secondary considerations. The president always has to be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni, the speaker of parliament a Shiite. Political appointments are also handed out according to the proportion system. As a result, it is almost impossible to take power away from those who have it – a situation which fosters corruption.
Furthermore, everything primarily designed to help the general public instead of a specific individual has been badly neglected over the decades. The train network, public buses and light rail, the sewage system, garbage removal, the electricity grid: A lot of infrastructure is in terrible shape, and some of it has disappeared entirely.
The fact that the Rhosus would never again leave the port and that its cargo of ammonium nitrate would be stored at the port for the almost seven years until the catastrophic blast – it all has to do with the fact that Lebanon is little more than a collection of businesspeople. It has become a merchant republic with limited liability.
This, of all places, is where Rhosus arrived hoping for help. The additional cargo that was to bring the needed revenue was a heavy truck, and the only place available to stow it on board was on the hatch covers. But they buckled, leading the captain to abort the loading process.
He then wanted to cast off without the additional cargo, but the port authority demanded that the ship pay demurrage. Not only that, but inspectors boarded the ship and determined that the Rhosus was not seaworthy and prohibited the ship from casting off. The Rhosus, loaded with 2,750 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, was stuck.
2014. The Rhosus is unloaded
After the loading of the additional cargo failed, the Rhosus was initially moved to a different berth. Corroded by rust, water began seeping into the hull and ultimately, the ship’s owner abandoned both the vessel and its cargo. The local agent also declared that he no longer bore any responsibility for the ship.
But what to do with the cargo? There were warnings from the very beginning. The freight was “extremely dangerous and presents a threat to public safety,” a colonel wrote to security authorities in February 2014.
This account of what happened next is based on testimony from customs officials, Kobaissi’s reporting and DER SPIEGEL’s own reporting.
Chief customs official Shafiq Merhi was apparently uninterested in disposing of the cargo. On the contrary, he sought a court injunction to allow him to seize and auction off the ship. The Rhosus, he argued, could sink at any time, thus representing a danger to the port.
Because the court in question was only responsible for emergencies, though, the judge merely ordered on June 27, 2014, that the cargo be “brought to a safe location” and the ship then towed out of the port area.
There was never a discussion about storing the ammonium nitrate at the port, just a few hundred meters from the heart of the city. That also would have been illegal: customs law forbids storage at the port.
But that is exactly what happened. In late October 2014, 2,750 sacks were unloaded and brought to Hangar 12, a kind of catchment for all manner of dangerous goods. And who was responsible for this kind of dangerous cargo? Customs chief Shafiq Merhi and Badri Daher, the customs official in charge of cargo inspection.
It isn’t likely that the two officials were unaware that the court they turned to had no jurisdiction over matters of property. They likely just wanted to create a paper trail to make it look like they were doing their jobs – without anything actually happening. Over the course of three years, they repeatedly filed the same motion with the same court, and kept receiving the same response: namely that the court in question was unable to clarify property matters and was thus unable to authorize a sale.
Hangar 12, meanwhile, was a strange place. Hardly any of the port workers, customs officials and express agents who were later questioned could recall ever seeing anything that was stored there be reloaded for onward shipment.
That is notable given that every port in the world has a space problem, which is why on-site warehouse rents tend to be so high. Anything stored in such a warehouse generally gets moved in a hurry. But in Hanger 12, stuff just kept piling up over the years. By the end of 2009, it was home to between 15 and 25 tons of fireworks. Later, a load of nitrocellulose thinner – a flammable industrial solvent – was apparently added, along with some kerosene. The warehouse was also home to five large spools of fuse and about a thousand automobile tires, which had been piled up in front of the hangar for several years before finally being brought inside.
And then the ammonium nitrate from the Rhosus arrived. It was the last ingredient for the perfect superbomb that customs had been assembling over the years in Hangar 12.
For a child’s building set, it might make sense to put similar objects together: blue discs with blue cubes, green bricks with other building blocks. But that rule doesn’t necessarily apply to a warehouse with no air conditioning, no smoke detectors, no sprinkler system, broken windows and a leaky roof located in a place with hot summers and high humidity. If the materials inside were to ever react with each other, it would release a massive explosive force.
It is unclear if anyone realized the danger, or whether it was simply a case of nobody feeling it was their responsibility. Or if nobody had enough power to prevent customs from storing all dangerous materials it seized in Hangar 12 and then simply leaving it there.
A single shipping container that found its way into Hangar 12 in 2013 shines perhaps the brightest light on the reason for the hoarding. For once, it was not full of a highly explosive substance, instead containing a drug laboratory for the production of the synthetic drug Captagon. It, too, was left in the warehouse for several years.
The other stuff in Hangar 12 – the fireworks, the fuses, the ammonium nitrate – isn’t illegal per se. It had just arrived in the country without the necessary import documentation. But a drug lab can never be legally imported and there is no reason to keep it around. Unless, of course, someone is interested in smuggling it back out of the country and selling it if the opportunity ever arose.
2015. What should be done with the ammonium nitrate?
Even a year after the Rhosus steamed into the Port of Beirut with its dangerous freight, the decisive question still hadn’t been answered: What to do with the ammonium nitrate?
On one single occasion, in January 2015, the ammonium nitrate vendor had examined the payload for “quality and quantity.” The company, Savaro Ltd., even hired a lawyer. A court sent a chemist to inspect the Rhosus cargo in Hangar 12, and she at least tried to do so. “I was supposed to determine the amount, but it was impossible to count,” she would later tell DER SPIEGEL. “Many of the sacks had tipped over, some were torn. They were heaped chaotically on top of each other.”
In her three-page report, she quoted port records which noted that 1,950 of the 2,750 sacks had been “torn” during unloading. According to Lebanese environmental laws, the sacks should have been removed.
After that, the vendor was never heard from again, apparently wanting nothing to do with the payload.
The Lebanese army, which was also contacted for possible interest, said it had no need for 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, and suggested that the sacks be sold to an explosives dealer. But he also declined, saying he had no interest in ammonium nitrate of unclear quality and provenance.
In short, nobody wanted to buy the stuff and nobody wanted responsibility. Perhaps the easiest path to getting rid of the ammonium nitrate, though, was never mentioned in the court filings from the customs director: Simply making it inactive and disposing of it. Because that would have cost money.
Spring 2016. Work underway next to Hangar 12
Joe Akiki was 19 years old in 2016, a talented engineering student at Notre Dame University, a private school near Beirut. With the grades he earned, he could have easily received a scholarship to cover half of the annual $10,000 tuition. But then, the university was hit by a corruption scandal and all scholarships were cancelled.
So Akiki went looking for a job. And he found one at the grain silo next to Hangar 12, where he was responsible for maintaining the silo’s electrical systems.
“After just a week, he wanted to leave the job,” recalls his mother Nohad. “He said there was hardly any light, everything was full of rats and nothing worked.”
The head of the silo convinced him to stay. It helped that Akiki’s father was also an electrician – in those moments when he once again found himself at a loss as he examined the antiquated copper sensors intended to register fill levels and other fittings that had been repeatedly patched up since the 1960s, but never replaced.
2017. The port gets a new chief customs official
By 2017, television reporter Riad Kobaissi had become head of the investigative team at the private broadcaster Al Jadeed. For many years, he had used hidden cameras in his reporting, but now that his face had become recognizable across the country, he increasingly sent out others to do the filming.
His reporters caught customs officials taking bribe money. And Kobaissi uncovered how the sons of the speaker of parliament and other politicians were importing their Ferraris tax free.
Kobaissi’s disclosures, though, did nothing to slow down the corruption, not even in late 2016, when Michel Aoun became president of Lebanon and promised to reform the country. Despite such pledges, though, Aoun also tried to install people from his party in key positions, including at the port.
It is, essentially, how Lebanon works: Official appointments provide leaders with the opportunity to reward loyal followers.
One of those followers loyal to Aoun was Badri Daher, the chic, ambitious official in charge of cargo inspection. An expert in the machinations of power, the 48-year-old is, like Aoun, a Maronite Christian. Those who know Daher describe him as smooth and cunning – and strategically adroit.
Daher received the appointment to take over as chief of customs.
He was also well-protected, to the point that scandals long seemed to simply bounce off him. It didn’t even hurt him that he named the most corrupt of his subordinates to head up the anti-corruption committee, according to Riad Kobaissi and a customs official.
2018. The Rhosus sinks
After having run aground the previous year in front of the entrance to the port, the Rhosus sank during a mid-February storm. And it was simply left there, “even though we petitioned for its removal on several occasions,” says a captain from the towage company that had previously dragged it out of port. The shipwreck in shallow waters presented a danger, he says, but nobody felt responsible for doing anything about it. “It’s a bit like a dead person lying in the road and nobody wants to collect the body for fear of being accused of murder.”
Seven months after the sinking of the Rhosus, the Justice Ministry requested that preparations be made for the sale of the ship, “or what is left of it.” In mid-October, a court authorized the sale of the Rhosus, on the condition that the wreck first be appraised by experts. That, though, would have cost the equivalent of around $500.
But no ministry and no authority was interested in paying that amount. For half a year, correspondence bounced back and forth, until November 2018, when the Transport Ministry urged the parties involved to move faster and avoid delay. But five more months would pass before, in April 2019, the Justice Ministry regretfully announced that it was unable to pay the sum necessary.
And the matter was swept back under the carpet.
September 2019. The Lebanon Doctrine
By late 2019, the Rhosus had been lying at the bottom of the port for one-and-a-half years and the ammonium nitrate had been in Hangar 12 for five years. Badri Daher had been chief of customs for two years. And Riad Kobaissi was continuing his reporting.
Daher had purchased a large piece of property in one of the most expensive of Beirut’s suburbs. Beyond that, he also owned several apartments, at least one of them allegedly a gift from a businessman, on whose behalf Daher had intervened to protect him from an arrest warrant. Kobaissi had revealed the connection on his show, and Daher never denied it.
In spring 2019, Lebanese President Auon was also apparently made aware of Badri Daher’s murky dealings.
But Auon and Daher are members of the same political party and the president made no attempt to intervene and nothing came of the corruption allegations. Once again, the Lebanese system of power showed its elastic tenacity when it comes to surviving criticism.
December 2019. A hole in the wall of Hangar 12
It’s not like the Port of Beirut wasn’t well guarded. The General Security Directorate had 140 agents there, while the military intelligence agency had 200 agents on site, under the command of a brigadier general. Beyond that, there were the guards on the customs payroll. In late 2019, another contingent arrived from the State Security agency. During a routine patrol through the port, the State Security commander Captain Joseph Naddaf noticed a hole in the south wall of Hangar 12, apparently intentionally punched through and large enough for someone to get inside. One of the sliding cargo doors was also broken and could no longer be closed.
State Security launched an investigation and took video footage through the hole, where the sacks of ammonium nitrate could be clearly seen. Kobaissi broadcast the footage on his show.
Naddaf, meanwhile, wrote a report about his discovery, which ultimately reached the public prosecutor’s office. Concerned about theft, Naddaf warned that the hole and door urgently needed to be repaired.
State Security, however, failed to count the sacks of ammonium nitrate, nor did the agency look around to see what else was being stored in Hangar 12. Still, one part of the report did mention the “immense danger” and the potential for “catastrophe” should the ammonium nitrate explode.
Naddaf, though, was primarily concerned about theft. His report did not include a recommendation to remove the ammonium nitrate from the port.
By then, six years had passed since the cargo was originally stored in the warehouse. And in all that time, nobody had taken a look to see how much of the original payload was still there.
July 2020. Finally, something happens in Hangar 12
Joe Akiki, the electrician in the grain silo next door to Hangar 12, celebrated a raucous birthday party on the evening of July 10, complete with live music and dozens of guests, in his hometown of Kfardebian up in the mountains. Ever since the preceding October, the country had been sliding deeper and deeper into the worst economic crisis in its history. The Lebanese currency had crashed, and protesters were taking to the streets across the country demanding reforms and a new government. Some of Akiki’s friends had told him they didn’t think he should be throwing such a big party given the circumstances.
“He saw it differently,” says one of Akiki’s friends. “Let’s party while we still can. Who knows what next year will bring!”
Meanwhile, there was finally some movement when it came to the situation in Hangar 12. The public prosecutor had gotten involved, and in early June, he ordered that the hole be plugged and the door be repaired. And State Security was pushing for action to be taken, given that highly explosive ammonium nitrate was involved. The agency wanted the stuff secured to make sure nobody could steal it.
When nothing had happened by July 20, State Security took the step of sending its report to the office of President Aoun and the prime minister’s office. Aoun would later say he had forwarded the report on to the Supreme Defense Council.
Once it arrived there, though, it wasn’t read carefully, instead being sent on to the Transport Ministry, along with a cover letter saying that a ship full of ammonium nitrate was anchored in the port – a ship that had actually sunk two-and-a-half years earlier, the cargo of which had been sitting in a warehouse full of explosive materials for the last six years.
Even if it had been read carefully, the report likely would have been sent onward to the Finance Ministry and then, eventually, to customs chief Badri Daher.
As it stood, though, the report was sent to the Transport Ministry by normal mail, yet another institution in Lebanon that was extremely inefficient. It would only arrive in the Transport Ministry after a week and a half.
On July 31, meanwhile, three Syrian workers started welding work at Hangar 12. Their assignment was to plug the hole and fix the door. They worked free of supervision and they likely didn’t know what was inside the warehouse.
August 4, 2020. The Catastrophe
The three welders finished work for the day at 4 p.m., right as Joe Akiki, the university student, called his mother to tell her that he was just starting his 24-hour shift at the grain silo, next to Hangar 12. A grain freighter was just unloading its cargo and it looked like he would be busy until midnight. The next day, he was planning to head to the mountains with friends for a camping trip.
It will likely never be determined what exactly triggered the explosion that ripped through Beirut on that evening. It seems likely, though, that sparks from the welding work started a smoldering blaze inside the warehouse.
The silo where Joe Akiki worked sits about 40 meters away from Hangar 12. Around an hour and a half after he began his shift, he became one of the first to notice the fire. Standing on a porch roof, he filmed the flames and the smoke that were pouring out of the windows of the warehouse.
At 6:04 p.m., he posted a three-second video to a WhatsApp group. He then called his mother again, apparently leaving the porch roof. Below him, firemen were running around the burning warehouse, apparently trying to break through one of the doors.
The fire department had been alerted just a few minutes earlier. They were told that Hangar 12 was on fire.
At 6:07 p.m., the two firemen Elie Khouzami and Charbel Karam requested urgent backup from headquarters. They said they only had three tons of water available – far too little, because the fire was much bigger than initially thought.
In the port and in nearby neighborhoods, a roar could be heard. The fire was sucking air in through the windows, while gases and flames were shooting out. Hangar 12 was roaring like a turbine, loud enough that many people mistakenly believed that Israel had launched an airstrike.
After the first explosion, Joe Akaki must have run to the elevator shaft deep inside the building.
Minerva Chartouni, the 69-year-old mother of her two grown-up children Sandra and Joseph, stood at her window, like thousands of other onlookers, both curious and concerned. It was the moment when she tried to reach her daughter on the phone.
Immediately afterwards, at 6:08:18, a gigantic ball of fire swallowed up Hangar 12 and the grain silo where Joe Akiki was. A huge, orange-and-black cloud shot up into the sky, followed by a surge of water vapor.
Many people in Beirut were filming when the second explosion detonated, sending a powerful blast wave through the city. The videos show that the blast wave sped outward faster than the speed of sound.
Initially, it raced toward the city at a speed of up to 2,500 meters per second. Ships were thrown ashore and half of the grain silo was destroyed, despite being built of steel-reinforced concrete. All that was left of Hangar 12 was a crater, perhaps a dozen meters wide, which rapidly filled with seawater.
The blast wave shattered windows, bashed in apartment doors and pushed into hallways inside. It kept going, even breaking windows in neighborhoods located far away from the port.
Minerva Chartouni was thrown across her living room by the force of the blast, through a doorway and against the wall of the hallway.
High in the mountains, in Joe Akiki’s hometown of Kfardebian, his mother heard the explosion. She started worrying when she was unable to reach Joe on the phone.
At some point during this fourth of August, the letter from Supreme Defense Council finally arrived at the Transport Ministry: There is a ship full of ammonium nitrate in the port.
After the explosion
Three days after the explosion, with the search for survivors and victims ongoing, President Michel Aoun made it clear that he didn’t bear any responsibility. He said he had known nothing of the danger presented by the ammonium nitrate and said he wasn’t responsible for the port.
He wasn’t the only one to deny any form of responsibility. Customs chief Badri Daher continues to reject accountability, insisting that the warehouses are the provenance of the port authority, and not customs.
Initially, Daher was appointed to the crisis task force, but was then placed under house arrest, having been taken into custody on August 17, along with the port director, the three Syrian workers and Joseph Naddaf, the State Security captain who had sounded the alarm eight months earlier when he found the hole in the wall of Hangar 12.
The Lebanese interior minister has rejected calls for an international investigation, saying: “Our investigators have the required competency.” A largely unknown military judge named Fadi Sawan was tasked with leading the investigation. He has yet to give any interviews or press conferences.
Instead, it was Kobaissi’s television reports that initially provided the Lebanese with information about the catastrophe. Week after week, he presented documents, videos and images, all of which served to illuminate the lies told by Badri Daher.
Early on, there was hope that the catastrophe – a blast that killed 200 people – might be enough to stop the corruption. Soon, though, everything was continuing just as it always had. A frustrated Kobaissi turned his attention to other issues. President Michel Aoun remained in office. Fadi Sawan, the military judge, continues to investigate. His report, the public has been told, will be released when it is finished.
Nohad, the mother of Joe Akiki, is in mourning. On the third day of searching after the explosion, her son was found in front of an elevator shaft in the grain silo, identified by the golden crucifix around his neck.
Badri Daher is in prison, along with 24 others. But he still hasn’t been fired from his job as chief of customs. The president hasn’t yet signed off.