An Expert Analysis of the Beirut Explosion and Its Causes

An Expert Analysis of the Beirut Explosion and Its Causes

In the wake of the catastrophic explosion at the port of Beirut on August 4th, Verint’s Terrogence web intelligence specialists collected images, videos and first-hand accounts of the incident from social media platforms, Web sites and news media. The analysts conducted their investigation using ORBIS, Verint’s own market-leading Web intelligence platform, and guided by Verint’s best-practice WEBINT methodologies.

These materials were then assessed by leading explosives expert, Michael Cardash, to provide expert analysis of the blast characteristics, what the tell-tale signs indicate about the cause of the explosion, and how it matches up with information released by local officials. Michael Cardash is one of the world’s leading experts in explosive devices, with over 30 years experience in the field, who trains law enforcement personnel and bomb technicians from around the world.

Download the full report to read our detailed analysis of the blast and its causes.

Summary of the explosion

  • A massive explosion centered in the port of Beirut, Lebanon, caused the death of at least 159 people, and injuries to more than 6,000.
  • According to local officials, the main cause of the explosion was a fire that broke out in a fireworks warehouse, close to where 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate were stored.

Examining the explosion

Expert analysis of the footage reveals two main occurrences :

  • Initial blast occurs – Fire erupts at a port warehouse, issuing thick gray smoke. Footage shows flames erupting from inside the facility, accompanied by flashes, pops and loud crackling – likely resulting from the exploding fireworks. The first explosion then occurs, with more white and gray smoke erupting and increasing fast, bright sparks and flashes discernible at low height.
  • Second blast occurs – Approximately 30 seconds after the first blast, a fireball erupts. Red and orange fumes rise from the center of the explosion, followed by a visible spherical blast wave, in the form of a white orb that expanded from the blast zone.

The blast produced reddish-brown cloud released into the air. These distinct characteristics strongly support the official account that the blast involved ammonium nitrate, which ignited.

When ammonium nitrate explodes, it releases a variety of gases including hydrogen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide (NO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2.) and ammonia gas. High concentrations of nitrogen dioxide gas, a byproduct from unreacted materials, create the reddish-orange color of the cloud

Red and orange fumes rise from the center of the explosion, as a spherical blast wave in the form of a white orb, rises to the sky

Where did the ammonium nitrate come from ?

The ammonium nitrate arrived in Beirut in 2013, after a ship enroute from Georgia to Mozambique was forced to dock there. The confiscated cargo of ammonium nitrate was unloaded from the ship and placed in a warehouse at the Beirut port.

Our analysis of collected information and images reveals that the likely provider of the ammonium nitrate was a Georgian chemical company named Rustavi Azot.

What lead to the explosion?

On its own, pure ammonium nitrate is not flammable and is relatively safe to handle, however storing it can be problematic, and it has been associated with a number of deadly industrial accidents in the past.

Large quantities of ammonium nitrate left in storage for long periods will decay. Over time, ammonium nitrate will absorb moisture and will eventually turn into a high-volume solid. In this form, it becomes more sensitive, and the chemical reaction, should it ignite, will be much more intense.

In the Beirut port, ammonium nitrate had been stored in close proximity to fireworks, which are highly flammable. This is the sort of heat source that would be needed to cause a large quantity of ammonium nitrate to explode. When a fire erupted at the fireworks facility, it caused the ammonium nitrate to combust. This, together with the confined storage space, caused the release of large amounts of hot gas. The build-up of pressure led to the explosion and the release of pressure in the form of a massive shock wave.

Download the full report to read our detailed analysis of the blast and its causes.

Yifat Mitrani

Author: Yifat Mitrani

Yifat Mitrani is the Product Marketing Lead for OMNIX Intelligence Fusion at Verint. Yifat has over 18 years of experience in the telco, financial services and intelligence sectors with expertise in fast-paced technology domains including cloud native, microservices and big data analytics. She has previously held positions at Amdocs, Deloitte Consulting and Morgan Stanley, and holds an Executive MBA from Kellogg-Recanati (Northwestern University).