Aftermath of a massive explosion is seen in in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020.

Aftermath of a massive explosion is seen in in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. AP / Hassan Ammar

‘Most Believe’ Beirut Blast ‘Accident,’ Esper Says, Contradicting Trump

The president said “some of our great generals” told him that the blast was “a bomb of some kind.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Wednesday afternoon said that “most believe” a massive explosion that devastated Beirut the day before was “an accident,” contradicting a claim by President Donald Trump that “generals” told him that the blast was an “attack.” 

“Still getting information on what happened,” Esper said, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum on Wednesday afternoon. “Most believe that it was an accident as reported and beyond that I have nothing further to report on that. It’s obviously a tragedy.”

The explosion, which flattened central Beirut and has killed more than 100 people as of Wednesday afternoon, took place at a warehouse in Beirut’s port area that Lebanese officials say housed thousands of pounds of explosive materials. The building consensus among Lebanese officials and weapons experts has been that the conflagration was a result of state negligence, and the Lebanese government has announced an investigation into why 2,750 tons of seized ammonium nitrate was left stored at the port for years. 

Trump on Tuesday said that “some of our great generals” told him that the blast was “a bomb of some kind,” but provided no evidence. 

“I met with some of our great generals and they just seem to feel that it was [an attack],” he told reporters at the White House. “This was not some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of event — they would know better than I would. They seem to think it was an attack, it was a bomb of some kind, yes."

Multiple U.S. officials who spoke to Defense One on the condition of anonymity say that they have seen no evidence that the explosion was the result of any kind of attack by a country or non-state terrorist group. They pointed to the public explanations by Lebanese officials that tons of ammonium nitrate — a fertilizer that can be used in bomb making — was confiscated in 2014 and then left in the port warehouse until it combusted on Tuesday. 

"I promise you that this catastrophe will not pass without accountability,” Prime Minister Hassan Diab said in a televised speech after the blast. “Those responsible will pay the price… Facts about this dangerous warehouse that has been there since 2014 will be announced, and I will not preempt the investigations."

Some port officials have been placed under house arrest as the investigation has begun. 

The explosions coincided with rising tensions between Israel and Hezbollah. Israel has long accused the Lebanese political group and militia of using warehouse control at the port to smuggle weapons into Lebanon. The disaster also comes before a decision in a politically sensitive murder trial related to the killing of ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. (Four alleged Hezbollah members are accused of the murder.) 

Israel has said that it had no involvement in the blast, and has offered humanitarian assistance towards recovery efforts. 

Lebanon is also in the throes of a financial crisis that has its economy on the brink of collapse. 

There is little evidence that tensions related to any of those concurrent crises precipitated the blast — although Lebanon’s strained economic situation combined with the breadth of the damage is hampering recovery and relief efforts. Hospitals, damaged in a blast that was felt in Cyprus 150 miles away, are overwhelmed by hurt and dying citizens. 

The U.S. Embassy warned American citizens to stay inside to avoid what Lebanese health officials say is a cloud of nitrous oxide in the city air. “There are reports of toxic gases released in the explosion so all in the area should stay indoors and wear masks if available,” the embassy said. 

One official familiar with the initial Lebanese investigation told Reuters in Beirut that although the question of storing the seized fertilizer safely had come up before official committees and judges, “nothing was done.” 

“It is negligence,” the official said.