On Aug. 4, Beirut was rocked by a massive explosion at a warehouse at one of the city’s port facilities. At least 135 people were killed and as many as 4,000 injured, with an estimated 300,000 left homeless because the blast destroyed their apartments or rendered them uninhabitable.
The explosion, reportedly set off by a nearby blaze at the port, was caught on camera by multiple individuals from different distances and angles. The blast was immediately followed by wild speculation on social media as to its origins.
Shortly after the blast was reported, Veterans Today tweeted:
“Breaking: Israel Nukes Beirut - Two explosions in Beirut, one a conventional guided bomb followed by a small nuclear weapon. The target seems to be an Iranian/Hezbollah missile storage facility. Our evaluation is guesswork and we are waiting for word from our nuclear exper...”
That is false.
Within hours of the incident, evidence mounted for another explanation. The explosion occurred after a fire had broken out nearby and firefighters were already at the scene. Al Jazeera reported that Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab cited ammonium nitrate stored at the site as the likely cause of the explosion.
The explosion itself displayed none of the tell-tale signs of nuclear detonation, one of the most important being a blinding flash. Furthermore, videos of the blast were posted online by people who would have been obliterated along with their media devices had there been a nuclear explosion.
So what caused the explosion?
It apparently began with a fire at the port facility and spread to 2,750 metric tons of highly-flammable ammonium nitrate fertilizer stored in a warehouse. Ammonium nitrate has been used as an improvised explosive, one of the most infamous cases being the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
Accidental detonations in plants and storage facilities have occurred throughout the chemical fertilizer’s history, such as the explosion at the BASF plant in Oppau, Germany in 1921, or more recently, a 2013 explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.
The Beirut fertilizer was seized from a ship in 2013 and had been left neglected in a warehouse since then.
In September 2013, the Moldovan-flagged ship Rhosus, owned by a Russian citizen living in Cyprus, was en route from the Georgian port of Batumi on the Black Sea to Mozambique. Citing technical problems, the Rhosus stopped in Beirut, where it was inspected by local authorities and deemed to be unworthy to sail.
The ship and its cargo were “abandoned” by the owner and the charterers, and after a legal battle the ship’s cargo was moved to a nearby warehouse, where it was to be stored prior to being auctioned or subject to “proper disposal.” Neither took place.
Worse still, information came to light on Aug. 5 that Lebanese government ministers knew that the hazardous cargo had been sitting in the warehouse for years, raising further doubts about governance in the country, which recently has been rocked by continuous protests against government corruption.
Al Jazeera reported that several port officials have been placed under house arrest pending an investigation into responsibility for the blast.
Despite the emerging counternarrative, Veterans Today doubled and tripled down on claims that Israel had used a nuclear weapon on Lebanon. Another tweet on Aug. 4 stated:
“Breaking: Israel Nukes Beirut, Russian Embassy Hit, Evidence In (updating) - A general in the Lebanese Army reports that Israel dropped a tactical nuclear weapon on the port of Beirut today. He reports that this was done to collapse the current political regime there and revo...”
The tweet did not provide a link to back up its claim. As for the Russian embassy in Beirut being “hit,” the embassy only reported that one worker suffered minor injuries when the building’s windows were shattered.
On Aug. 5, Veterans Today tweeted out a condemnation of fact checkers contradicting its unsubstantiated claims:
“'Fact Checking' The Nuke That Hit Beirut - Within hours of VT breaking the news that Israel had nuked Beirut, the 'fact checkers' were out in force trying to contradict us, but the best they could do was a pretty pathetic effort comprised of nothing of substance, just regurgit...”
That tweet is also false:VT: did not “break” the news of Israel “nuking” Beirut because that did not happen. Veterans Today not only failed to present any evidence for its claim that the blast was a nuclear weapon, but there is plenty of visual evidence that the blast was non-nuclear.
With the Lebanese officials saying the explosion was caused by the stored ammonium nitrate, Veterans Today’s claims about “breaking the news” are even more discredited.
In a 2017 Politico article on Russian disinformation targeting U.S. military veterans, author Ben Schreckinger noted comments by the chairman of Veterans Today in a 2012 interview:
“About 30% of what’s written on Veterans Today, is patently false. About 40% of what I write, is at least purposely, partially false, because if I didn’t write false information I wouldn’t be alive.”