• Colonel Jim Waurishuk, USAF (Ret.)

Beirut: Post Blast Scrutiny May Turn to Hezbollah’s Weapon Stores

While Iran-backed Hezbollah has nothing to fear from the state of Lebanon, it will not escape public opprobrium. Most will assume the volatile chemicals belonged to it, for use in Syria and against Israel. Because of that narrative, Hezbollah will not escape blame for deadly chemical blast in Beirut on Tuesday.

As if the Lebanese have not suffered enough. For months, they have been caught between an economic meltdown, crumbling public services and a surging pandemic. Now they must count the dead and survey the extensive damage to their capital after two giant explosions on Tuesday.

The blasts, especially the second, were so huge they were reportedly heard and felt in 150 miles away on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Nearly 140 people have been killed and over 3,000 wounded, and its immediate neighborhood lies in smoking ruin; miles away, streets are full of shattered glass.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government says the explosions were caused when careless welding ignited about 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly volatile combustible material used as fertilizer and for bomb-making. By comparison, Timothy McVeigh used about 2.4 tons of the same chemical in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. The 2015 disaster in the Chinese city of Tianjin was caused by the explosion of 800 tons of ammonium nitrate.

The equivalent of 1,100 Oklahoma City-size bombs could indeed account for the devastation and the reddish mushroom cloud that plumed gaudily over the Beirut port. But it does not mean the Lebanese will simply accept that the explosion was an unavoidable, force majeure event.

Assuming the official account holds up, the disaster again exposes the rot that is destroying the country — an especially corrosive mix of corruption, ineptitude and malign intentions.

The ammonium nitrate was apparently seized in 2013 from a Moldovan-flagged ship, the MV Rhosus traveling from the country of Georgia to Mozambique. But someone, who, we do not yet know, but certainly have our suspicions, forced the vessel for “financial and technical” reasons to be brought it into the port of Beirut. Despite that and for whatever reasons, instead of returning to ship and its cargo, auctioning it off, or properly and safely disposing of it, the Beirut port management inexcusably allowed it to be stored there for years, in suspected Hezbollah owned warehouses.

Look, its Lebanon! There is nothing to be gained for guessing who in Lebanon might be interested in keeping such vast quantities of explosive material that close at hand. And no guessing on the reason. U.S. Intelligence and U.S. Treasury does not, nor does Israel. Both know that Hezbollah controls many of Beirut’s port facilities…obviously for a reason.

It is from that standpoint, considering the facts, it is more than obvious that Hezbollah was aware of the existence of the large stockpile of ammonium nitrate at the port. Based on that it is my consideration, that Hezbollah officials orchestrated and manipulated the detainment of the Russian ship as a rouse, a deception operation, to knowingly obtain its valuable cargo. As well as orchestrating the eventual off-loading of the volatile material into a suspect Hezbollah owned warehouse. Why? For future use as a stockpile of bomb making material, and or creating a massive explosion (in place) , at an opportune time, in the port, as we witnessed Tuesday.

That said, in the meantime, the Lebanese Prime Minister, whose government is entirely dependent on political support from Hezbollah and its opposition Maronite Christian allies, has vowed to hold those responsible to account. More than likely, some minor officials will be fingered for permitting improper storage of highly dangerous material. And of course, the finger pointing has already begun, with a number of port officials place on house arrest on Wednesday. I doubt, they’re Hezbollah.

Understand, Iran-backed Hezbollah, with its large and well-armed militia as well as its “political hold” on the prime minister, has nothing to fear from the government. However, it will not escape public opprobrium: Most Lebanese will assume the ammonium nitrate belonged to the Hezbollah militia for use in Syria and in the south against Israel.

Of course, the big question is why the volatile chemicals exploded is another matter, that speculation is rich with possibilities of conjecture. In the court of public opinion, the usual suspects will be rounded up from the ongoing shadow war orchestrated and conducted by Iran and Hezbollah on one side and Israel on the other. President Trump speculated it was a deliberate attack according to his generals. I have my thoughts as to why he made that claim -- per my previous comment. That statement by the President, will no doubt be picked up, amplified, and used as part of the assessment by both operations and intelligence experts, and certainly by conspiracy theorists internationally.

I understand Hezbollah and Lebanon politics and will always lead with my many years of experience working terrorist operations in this part of the Middle East – by asking, questioning, and referencing Hezbollah’s involvement and its modus operandi. As of today, that has already occurred. Any suspicions of Hezbollah’s culpability will by all means intensify on Friday when a United Nations special tribunal for Lebanon that has been looking into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is expected to issue verdicts in cases against four Hezbollah terrorists being tried in absentia. The four men are in hiding and have not been seen in years. Also realize, even if they are found guilty, no one expects them to be handed over. Prime Minister Hariri, remember, was killed in a massive car bomb blast in south Beirut. I have been to that blast site as part of an intelligence investigation.

So, in the meantime, we will wait. A guilty verdict would increase domestic pressure on Hezbollah, its allies, and the government. When Lebanese have finished mourning their dead, anger will return — the kind that fueled the massive street demonstrations that brought down Prime Minister Diab’s predecessor last October.

Even without the Beirut blasts, the timing of the verdict would have been awkward for the Prime Minister, who is struggling to negotiate an economic bailout with the International Monetary Fund. Among the hurdles is Hezbollah’s resistance to the necessary reforms. Understand, Hezbollah, feeds off the poverty and misery of Lebanon’s people, like all Socialist organizations and regimes, suffering is equality and provides for blame of the opposition.

The timing of the explosions could not be worse for Lebanon, coming amid the country’s economic collapse, the Coronavirus pandemic, and ongoing popular protests against corruption and incompetence in Lebanon. Before the blasts, Lebanon did not have enough fuel to keep the electricity running to its hospitals full-time without the use of back-up generators, let alone to average citizens.

Strategically, it is important to both assess and determine any longer-term implications that the devastating blast will have on Hezbollah, certainly the Lebanese government, and the wider effects regionally. While, it is impossible to predict at this early stage, when people in Beirut still remain missing and trapped under rubble. It will be critical to assess both the political effects on the fragile Lebanese government and how both Hezbollah maneuvers and how Hezbollah and its state sponsor Iran plays this disaster. And likewise, whether it further weakens Lebanon, and what Iran might do in response.

Again, the consideration that I am looking at closely, is the motive that points to the possibility that this might have been a possible sabotage operation by Hezbollah. There are UN court verdict, as well as political, diplomatic, and regional geopolitical ramifications. So, will the blast be a wake-up call for the Lebanese government and the country’s citizens?

Realize the wide-scale destruction in the Lebanese capital, the near-absolute destruction of its most important port, and the fury of the Lebanese populace at a government that allowed this to happen will undoubtedly have lasting consequences on a country already in the throes of political turmoil.

From a positive approach, will it lead to more governmental reform and a more capable, technocratic government, able to set the country on a more stable track, preferably — for Israel, the West and the anti-Iran Arab coalition — without Hezbollah as a key player in the country’s politics? Or will we see a reversion to the violent sectarianism that led to Lebanon’s decades-long civil war and the current incompetence and corruption? For all intent and purposes, it is far too early to say.

Though much of the anger already expressed by the Lebanese population has been directed toward the government in general, as the country picks itself up and fully assesses the situation, and as I suggested depending on Hezbollah role and or involvement, may quickly find itself facing criticism over its already well known practice of storing weapons and explosive materials in civilian areas — including large quantities of ammonium nitrate.

I believe, as of today, Hezbollah finds itself uncomfortably positioned as the principal backer of the government presiding over a thoroughgoing collapse of the Lebanese state and society. It will not easily shake off blame for the Tuesday’s Beirut blast, or for the Hariri assassination. Even in Lebanon, a country that has suffered so much and for so long, the latest of Lebanon’s tragedies will not soon be forgotten, nor its perpetrators forgiven.

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