Lebanon’s government has blamed a large quantity of poorly stored ammonium nitrate for the huge blast that rocked its capital, Beirut, killing scores of people and devastating swathes of the city. What is this chemical, and why did it explode?
Ammonium nitrate is an industrial chemical commonly used around the world as an agricultural fertilizer, and in explosives for mining.
It has also been used as a key component in improvised explosives, notably in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, in the 2002 bombings in Bali, Indonesia, and by far-right Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik in his 2011 shooting and bombing attack.
In this case, according to Lebanese officials, about 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate had been stockpiled at a Beirut port warehouse, just a few minutes’ walk from the city’s shopping and nightlife districts, since it was confiscated in 2014.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab said the chemical had been stored for the past six years “without preventive measures,” and promised an investigation.
It’s not yet clear what caused the stockpile in Beirut’s port to ignite, with such deadly results, on Tuesday evening.
“Ammonium nitrate is … relatively safe by itself, although a strong oxidant, but highly dangerous when contaminated by any kind of fuel, such as oil or organic material, even in just a few per cent,” Roger W. Read, Honorary Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales’ School of Chemistry, told the Science Media Centre.
“In the presence of heat, such a mixture can easily lead to catastrophic outcomes,” Read added.
Mossad reportedly gave Germany information about warehouses in the south of the country where Hezbollah stashed hundreds of kilograms of ammonium nitrate, a material used to make explosives.
Israeli intelligence was also said to have handed over details of key individuals in Hezbollah’s operations in Germany, including money networks used to launder cash and transfer millions of euros into the terror group’s bank accounts as well as to fund activities within the country.