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Two Years Later: What Really Lies Behind the Beirut Explosion?

Let’s unlock the dark secrets of this story

Nebulous characters and institutions surround the dramatic event of August 4, 2020. To name a few: a company under investigation for supplying explosives used in the 2004 Madrid train bombings, a businessman from Cyprus in debt up to his eyeballs, a criminal bank, and, of course, a terrorist group we know too well: Hezbollah.

What follows is the tale of a tragedy in which the main actors, hidden behind a smokescreen, show themselves in a rather dark light.

The Roots of the Blast: Ammonium Nitrate

The formula was on everyone’s lips: ammonium nitrate. It was this powerful explosive agent that blew everything up. We know the story: the product, 2,750 tons, according to the first reports, was stored in the port of Beirut after it was confiscated from the container ship MV Rhosus in 2014. What is less well-known is the thread that leads to the famous story, which begins in September 2013 in the Georgian port of Batumi, when the MV Rhosus, with the explosive product on board, set off for Mozambique.

Spanish inspectors had previously noticed the poor condition of the ship: corroded deck, auxiliary power lacking, and problematic radio communication systems. But the MV Rhosus had to deliver the load to its consignee, whatever the circumstances. Before Mozambique, though, the cargo ship had to make a port stop in Beirut to load more goods; but it never left the Lebanese city.

It is alleged to have been held up first by creditors seeking to collect debts from its operator, then by port officials who deemed it too dangerous for navigation. As for the ammonium nitrate, it was transferred to a warehouse in the port of Beirut and remained there until that fateful day of August 2020.

Igor Grechushkin, a Mere Pawn

After the explosion, all eyes were on Russian Igor Grechushkin, who was said to be the owner of the MV Rhosus. But this was a false lead. Through a Marshall Islands company called Teto Shipping, Grechushkin, who had been paid $1 million to transport the ammonium nitrate to the port of Beira, Mozambique, had chartered the ship from a Panamanian company called Briarwood Corporation, according to official records from Moldova’s Naval Agency.

Briarwood is owned by Charalambos Manoli, a Cypriot businessman. Two months before the MV Rhosus left for its final voyage, Manoli, through one of its companies, Acheon Akti Navigations Ltd, had rented a new generator from the international equipment rental company Aggreko. The unpaid hiring cost for this generator was one of the causes of the debt incurred by the MV Rhosus, a debt that would warrant the detention of the ship in the port of Beirut.

But neither Briarwood nor Manoli possessed the ammonium nitrate. We have to look elsewhere to find its holder.

An Explosives Company With Questionable Relationships

This deadly product had been ordered by Fabrica de Explosivos de Mocambique, which is 95% owned by a company called Moura Silva & Filhos. Moura Silva & Filhos’s name came up in the investigation into the Madrid train bombings in 2004, in which nearly 200 people were killed. In 2005, the Portuguese police, thanks to a tip provided by the Spanish authorities, raided four warehouses belonging to Moura Silva & Filhos, where they seized 785 kilograms of explosives.

According to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), this firm is closely linked to the Mozambican government and its military apparatus. Fabrica de Explosivos’s current head, Nuno Vieira, has since 2012 been the business partner of Jacinto Nyusi, the son of Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi, with whom he owns an event and marketing company. That same year, Vieira, along with the state investment company Monte Binga and the Mozambique secret services, founded Mudemol, a munitions and explosives manufacturer that is one of the main suppliers of the military. Monte Binga has been accused by the United Nations of breaking international sanctions by securing military deals with North Korea.

Also according to the OCCRP, the explosives factory that was to receive the MV Rhosus’s cargo shares an address with ExploAfrica, a company co-owned by the Vieira family. Confidential documents show that ExploAfrica and its affiliates were the subjects of an investigation by South African and Portuguese authorities for obtaining weapons that poachers used against rhinos and elephants in Kruger National Park, South Africa, close to the border with Mozambique.

Neither Fabrica de Explosivos de Mocambique nor Moura Silva & Filhos made any attempt to recover the cargo after the seizure of the MV Rhosus in 2014. But an opaque UK company had taken the first step in that direction; this company is Savaro Limited, which acted as an intermediary in the purchase of the ammonium nitrate by Fabrica de Explosivos. Savaro had hired a Lebanese lawyer in February 2015 to petition a local court to inspect the quality and quantity of the ammonium nitrate held in a warehouse in the port of Beirut. The inspection report concluded that most of the bags containing this latter product were ripped and that their contents had spilled. But nothing was done to get rid of it.

Two years before the MV Rhosus’s last voyage, its owner, Charalambos Manoli, had taken out a $4 million loan from a rogue institution, the Federal Bank of the Middle East (FBME). Founded by the Lebanese Saab family, the FBME had to close its doors after being sanctioned in 2014 by the U.S. government for criminal activities. This bank served as a shield to facilitate money laundering, terrorist financing, fraud, tax evasion, and other illicit activities.

But one of the main stories regarding the FBME is that in 2008, one of its clients had deposited hundreds of thousands of dollars that came from one of the financiers of an organization that knows a lot about ammonium nitrate since it has used it on several occasions: Hezbollah.

Was Hezbollah Too Quickly Left Out of the Investigation?

The Lebanese elections of May 2018 boosted the influence of Hezbollah’s political wing in Lebanese society. The bloc of which the Islamist organization is a member won just over half of the 128 seats in the parliament. In addition, the Defense portfolio was assigned to one of its allies, Elias Bou Saab of the Free Patriotic Movement. To this list, we must add the Minister of Health, Jamil Jabak, the former personal physician of Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

But above the stack are two other much more important assets of the Shiite organization, namely Abbas Ibrahim, head of the General Security Directorate, and, above all, Wafiq Safa, Hezbollah’s security chief and Hassan Nasrallah’s brother-in-law. Safa is the one who, we are told, manages the port of Beirut. A job that deserves serious attention because if we rely on three European intelligence sources investigating the event of August 4, 2020, the quantity of ammonium nitrate stored in the warehouse was perhaps less than the initial 2,750 tons. In fact, the force of the explosion suggests that around 700 to 1,000 tons were still stored in the port warehouse that fateful day. What happened to the remainder of the product?

We can go further. German newspaper Die Welt, citing intelligence sources, reported on August 20, 2020, that Hezbollah had previously obtained ammonium nitrate from Iran. The amounts delivered included 270 tons in July 2013, an additional 270 tons in October of the same year, and more in April 2014. In all, Hezbollah has allegedly received just over 1,000 tons of ammonium nitrate. These dates, 2013–2014, correspond to the delivery of the famous explosive product to the port of Beirut.

There is no indication, however, that Hezbollah was behind the August 4 blast, but it appears that these facts were overlooked by what remains of the Lebanese government and the docile media. Especially since the Shiite organization has a history of using explosives. In January 2012, for that matter, Thai police seized four tons of explosives, including ammonium nitrate, after the arrest of Hezbollah operative Hussein Atris. In October 2014, another member of the organization, Mohammed Amadar, was arrested in Peru in possession of explosives after being caught scoping out local Jewish targets.

In September 2015, thanks to intelligence provided by Israel, authorities in London discovered three tons of ammonium nitrate contained in thousands of ice packs. A similar plot was staged in Bolivia in 2015. That year, moreover, the Cypriot authorities seized 8.2 tons of ammonium nitrate, also held in ice packs.

Sources

BBC, Buzzfeed, Gouvernement américain, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, OCCRP #1 et #2, Reuters, S & P Global Market Intelligence, The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, The Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel, Wikipedia

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