Dispelling Disinformation and Digging For The Truth of Beirut’s Explosion

How can open source information and tools lead us to the truth?

By: Anna Lekas Miller

On August 4th, at 6:08 PM, an explosion ripped through the Lebanese capital of Beirut, leaving swaths of the city in shambles.

Like most with a connection to Beirut, I did not hear about the blast through a manicured (and presumably fact-checked) news article or television broadcast. Instead it was through a flurry of WhatsApp messages, asking if my friends, family and loved ones were okay—as I struggled to find out myself, it started to become clear that this was far more serious than the explosions that plagued the city in the past. Almost everyone I talked to was reporting shattered glass, doors blown clearly out of their frames, and a force so close that multiple people described “flying” across the room—many passed out after being slammed against walls, or were cut with shards of broken glass.

Everyone had their theories—was it an airstrike? Eyewitnesses recalled a low buzzing sound humming through the air, before the pressure was sucked out of the room and everything seemed to shatter. Was it a car bomb? It wouldn’t be the first time, but the explosion was so loud, and the damage so vast that others thought a nuclear explosion was the only logical explanation for the mushroom cloud that rose over the city.

Of course, the truth was far more sinister—2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, one of the most explosive chemicals, and an apparent favorite of the so-called Islamic State, abandoned in the port of Lebanon for the upwards of seven years, with no safety protocols.

But how was this confirmed, particularly amidst the dozens of theories flying around as to the source of the blast? As we know, conspiracy theories have a certain kind of sticking power, and in a country like Lebanon, almost anything can be weaponized into disinformation that is far more interested in serving a political agenda than revealing the truth.

“One major thing that allowed us to investigate this, is that everyone who saw white smoke, and heard the noise immediately started filming,” said Marwan Khoury, a Lebanese Open Source Investigator who works with Maat Science, and has been working on gathering, analyzing, and verifying information about the blast since it happened.

“We had all of these videos, some from far away, some from up close—from an investigation point of view, this is really good. What is sad, is that all of these people put themselves in danger.”

Within a few hours, videos started surfacing of a missile flying next to the blast—supporting one of the theories that it was a long-awaited Israeli airstrike hitting the port of Beirut. However, according to Khoury, the sheer abundance of video made this easy to debunk, and also went on to debunk other theories, like that it was a nuclear explosion.

“I superimposed two videos on top of one another—one was taken from near the explosion, at the port, while the second was taken from further away, on the highway,” Khoury shared with Media Diversity Institute.

“What I noticed, is that even though the videos were taken from very different angles, the missile was the same size—if it were real, it would have been smaller or larger, depending on the perspective,” Khoury continued.

“Whoever did this fake, did not bother to change the missile’s shape and size, and this is how it was caught.”

But what about the origins of the explosion? For this, Khoury recommends to again turn towards the videos to map out the exact sequence of events, and then cross referencing this with expert scientific knowledge to determine whether the explosion was caused by a nuclear reaction or a chemical reaction.

“The sequence of the events was fire, a few small explosions, then the first explosion and finally the biggest explosion,” explains Khoury, describing what the videos showed. “This does not play well with the theory of a nuclear explosion.”

But if it was not a nuclear explosion, what was it? Soon, Khoury started seeing images circulating of ammonium nitrate bags on WhatsApp—but, like most media that comes through over WhatsApp, treated it as nothing more than a rumor. However, he decided to investigate it nevertheless, first determining that the bags were located in a warehouse that looked very similar to the ones at the Beirut port, then that the photographs of the bags were taken recently.

“There were three men next to the bags, and one of them was wearing a face mask,” he explained. “It allowed me to know that the photograph was relatively recent, because we started wearing those around April, here in Lebanon.”

While there were rumors that the explosion was ignited by welding work, there was no evidence of tools or construction in the photograph. However, the location supports the hypothesis that it is, indeed at the port, and the mask points to the fact that it is a relatively recent image—now it is time to confirm that ammonium nitrate could, in fact, create an explosion (or series of explosions) of that size.

“According to my knowledge, if you explode ammonium nitrate it is going to dig a crater,” Khoury continued, explaining that he then used satellite imagery to look for a crater at the location of the warehouse. Once he found that crater, he geolocated it over other images from the first and second explosions, further strengthening his hypothesis.

Another clue from the numerous videos and images of the explosion was the reddish color of the smoke—another sign that it was ammonium nitrate. While Khoury has received numerous YouTube videos of alleged bomb disposal experts, explaining that the explosion must have been nuclear, he points out that the transparency of an open source investigation is far more reliable than alleged credentials.

“Whenever I get these videos, I ask—where is his method? Where is the material he worked on,” he explains, pointing out the lack of transparency. Still, even though Khoury’s work is evidence-based and painstakingly transparent, he points out that his investigation is supporting a strong, working hypothesis —not necessarily proven fact.

Meanwhile in Beirut, horror has transformed into rage—and tens of thousands of people have been taking to the streets of Lebanon, protesting the greed and corruption that lead to this tragedy and seeking revenge for their lost loved ones. After a year of fighting a sometimes-losing battle against the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, and an economic collapse that has been described as forcing the middle classes into poverty, and the poor into destitution, the explosion has revealed the broken system that has held the country hostage for far too long.

“Lebanon was losing a lot before this, and in one explosion they lost lives, homes, children,” Khoury continued.  “I don’t see what else we can do besides digging until we uncover the full truth of what happened.”

Read Marwan Khoury’s full report (in French) here. Check out our Adwa2 project, which works with Lebanese, Syrian and Iraqi journalists on investigating disinformation in the Middle East, here.