Apr 21 2021

From Time to Time – Ammonium Nitrate and Germany

Published by at 9:47 am under From Time to Time

From Time to Time

History does not repeat itself,
But it certainly likes to rhyme.

 

 

Ammonium Nitrate and Germany’s

 

Explosive Relationship with Lebanon

 

by Anna Rosmus

 

 

Ammonium Nitrate and Germany’s Explosive Relationship with Lebanon

In 1659, German chemist Johann R. Glauber synthesized the first batch of ammonium nitrate, an oxidizer. For hundreds of years, it was used as a fertilizer component, thus increasing the yield of crops and other plants. During World War I, however, ammonium nitrate’s explosive capabilities were discovered, and soon German ammonia synthesis facilities began to produce materials for bombs.

In 1921, at Kriewald, 30 tons of ammonium nitrate detonated, and 19 people died. Two months later, on September 21, when a silo with 4,500 tons of ammonium sulfate and ammonium nitrate at a BASF plant in Oppau exploded, approximately 500–600 people were killed, and another 2,000 were injured.

During World War II, amatol, a highly explosive mixture of TNT and ammonium nitrate, was used extensively for weapons such as aircraft bombs, shells, depth charges, and naval mines.[1] Even warheads for the German V-1 flying bomb and V-2 rockets contained amatol.

In May 1941 Admiral François Darlan signed the Paris Protocols, an agreement that granted the Germans access to military facilities in Vichy-controlled Syria.[2] Although the document remained unratified, the Luftwaffe refuelled its aircraft there, and Germans requested permission to use Syrian railways to send armaments to Iraqi nationalists in Mosul.[3]

After VE-Day, when combat ended in Europe, the U.S. army discarded exorbitant amounts of captured explosives. Countless caches were shipped to Bremen.

 

SC 246725 17,000 10 1/2 inch Artillery shells at Schierling awaiting shipment to Bremen after World War II.

 

Decades later, Bremen continues to be generally considered an appropriate location for such volatile commodities.

A 2018 case study quoted Martin McVicar, Managing Director of the globally successful Irish Combilift: “Germans are very analytical and open to innovative products when they can see a visible benefit – for example, when it will make them more efficient,” and “Having Germany as a good reference has helped to build our credibility in other export markets – customers think if German companies are buying our product, it must be good.”[4]

In spite of a sporadic migration from the Middle East since the 20th century, Germany’s Lebanese population did not significantly increase until the Lebanese civil war began in 1975. Today, people of Lebanese descent represent one of the country’s largest minorities. Most of them hold dual citizenship, and a majority is presumed to be Shia and Sunni Muslims. Few make headlines.

In the spring of 2020, however, Mossad, the Israeli Foreign Intelligence Agency, alerted German authorities that Hezbollah was warehousing ammonium nitrate in southern Germany.[5] And whereas Germany formerly distinguished between Hezbollah’s political party and its military wing, on April 30, 2020 Horst Seehofer, the German Interior Minister, declared that all Hezbollah activities were banned.[6]

At that time, a lot happened regarding various stashes of ammonium nitrate; some of it behind strategically closed doors, and some hidden in plain sight.

According to Reuters, FEM, a Mozambique firm, ordered thousands of tons ammonium nitrate from Savaro Ltd, a London trading company that procured the chemicals in 2013. Shipping records show that these were loaded onto the Rhosus in Georgia, before making an originally unscheduled stop in Lebanon, in November 2013. According to Al Jazeera, the vessel had mechanical problems. Indebted already, and unable to pay for its passage through the Suez Canal, the ship was abandoned.[7] After lengthy litigation, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate were confiscated. Port officials stated that the chemicals were then stored in Hangar 12, near the docks. Its surroundings, the local climate, and other conditions made the ship unfit for explosive cargo. According to The New York Times, Lebanese custom officials requested its disposal, at least six times.

Greater Beirut has a population of 2.2 million. On August 4, 2020, welding work at a warehouse triggered an explosion that reached a 3.3 magnitude on the Richter scale. It killed 211 people and wounded more than 6,000. A report by SARAH GIBBENS began with a graphic description:

Look closely at footage of downtown Beirut, and you can see the ground warp and buckle just after the blast erupted .… Cell phone videos also show the shockwave and dust cloud rushing through the portside buildings, leaving behind scenes of carnage in the Lebanese capital.[8]

Entire neighborhoods were devastated. Beirut mayor Marwan Abboud estimated that between 250,000 and 300,000 people became homeless, and rebuilding would likely cost 10 to $15 billion.

Rumors ran wild. During a press briefing at the White House, President Donald Trump began to make the unsubstantiated claim that it was a bomb attack.[9]

When associate editor Samir Salama reminded the public in the Gulf News from August 7, 2020 that “Iran-backed terrorists kept the explosive chemicals in ‘cold packs’,”[10] Germany’s Federal Authority for the Protection of the Constitution quickly asserted that “The stored cold packages were taken out of Germany in 2016. There is no information or evidence that this storage of the cold packages has any connection to the warehouse in Beirut port.”[11]

On August 20, Asia Times published an article by ALISON TAHMIZIAN MEUSE. According to the German daily Die Welt, she began, “Hezbollah is believed to have imported up to 670 tons of ammonium nitrate.”[12] Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, however, “categorically” denied his group was involved in that port.[13]

When military experts were called in for an inspection, they located 4.35 tons of additional ammonium nitrate. Allegedly, this was removed “and dealt with”. On September 10, however, when a massive fire erupted, port authorities voiced their concern over remaining material at their facility.

Internationally, interest in these matters resulted in a variety of events.

During an AJC webinar on September 17, for example, Ambassador Nathan Sales, U.S. coordinator for counterterrorism at the Department of State, announced that “Since 2012, Hezbollah has established caches of ammonium nitrate throughout Europe by transporting first aid kits whose cold packs contain the substance.”[14] A representative of the German Federal Interior Ministry confirmed the seizure of ammonium nitrate, in substantial amounts, in southern Germany.

Already at the brink of economic collapse, worsened due to Covid-19, Lebanon publicly asked for international support. Germany’s response was decisive. The Federal Government sent some 50 members of its SEEBA (Rapid Deployment Unit Search and Rescue) team. The Bundeswehr deployed a medical exploration team and the corvette Ludwigshafen. The Auswärtiges Amt (Federal Foreign Office) pledged financial help for Deutsches Rotes Kreuz (German Red Cross) activities in Lebanon. Even NGOs such as @fire Internationaler Katastrophenschutz Deutschland and I.S.A.R. Germany (International Search and Rescue) sprang into action.

In November, Lebanon signed another deal. On February 6, 2021, AP headlined, “German firm to remove dangerous material from Beirut port.” For $3.6 million, Combi Lift in Bremen was to treat and ship abroad containers with flammable chemicals. The company website declares,

At Combi Lift, we believe that, by setting the highest standards through solid business ethics, inspirational leadership, and integrated best practices in quality, health, safety, environment and pollution prevention, we are able to provide safe, innovative and reliable transport solutions that meet the individual demands and expectations of our clients.”[15]

An announcement that Lebanese port authorities will pay only $2 million, whereas the German government will cover the rest, raised more than some eyebrows, however. And when Andreas Kindl, Germany’s ambassador to Lebanon, tweeted that the treatment at Beirut’s port for 52 containers of “hazardous and dangerous chemical material” was complete, he added that the material was to be shipped to Germany.

Background stories and speculations, however, continue to emerge. On January 17, 2021, Reuters reported that “The company that bought the ammonium nitrate which exploded in Beirut last August had possible links to two Syrian businessmen under U.S. sanctions for ties to President Bashar al-Assad.”[16]

 

 

Footnotes

[1] Brown, G. I. The Big Bang: A History of Explosives. Sutton Publishing, 1998 pp. 158-163.

[2] Keegan, John, in: Dear, I. C. B.; Foot, M. R. D. (eds.). Oxford Companion to World War II. New York: Oxford University Press 2005, p. 676

[3] On February 27, 1945, fifteen months after Lebanon became an independent state, it declared war on Germany.

[4] Combilift, based in Annahagh, Ireland, is a manufacturer of multidirectional forklifts and not to be confused with the Bremen-based Combi Lift mentioned later in this piece. For details see: “Strong Strategy Key to Combilift’s German Market Success”, in Enterprise Ireland from June 12, 2018.

[5] Not until August 6, two days after the Beirut explosion, did Martin Hagen from the Free Democratic Party (FDP) ask the state government whether Bavarian authorities knew of such depots in the Free State, whether they had been located, and how much ammonium nitrate had been seized. The resulting evasiveness surprised few.

[6] In May 2020, the Israeli N12 channel reported about an Israeli official saying the ban was “the result of many months of work with all parties in Germany. The heads of services were required to present explicit evidence and legal proof… linking the organization to significant terrorist activity – and that is what we did,” before he added that “Bruno Kahl, the head of the German intelligence organization BND, is a close friend of the Mossad.”

[7] A BBC-interview with Boris Prokoshev, the Russian captain clarified details. It was published on August 7, 2020. For details see: “Russian captain recalls journey that led to deadly cargo being impounded”

[8] For details see: “https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/deadly-history-ammonium-nitrate-explosive-linked-to-beirut-blast” from August 6, 2020

[9] For details see: “Donald Trump claims Beirut explosion ‘looks like a terrible attack’ – video” in: The Guardian from August 4, 2020

[10] Beirut blasts/ Hezbollah stored ammonium nitrate in Germany | Mena – Gulf News

[11] For details see “Hezbollah stored ammonium nitrate in Germany” from August 7, 2020

[12] In 2017, the world produced more than 20 million tons of ammonium nitrate.

[13] For details see Halaschak, Zachary: “’No cache, no nothing’: Hezbollah leader denies storing weapons at Beirut port at center of explosion” in the Washington Examiner from August 7, 2020

[14] Toby DERSHOWITZ and DYLAN GRESIK quickly pointed out that “Hezbollah, designated a terrorist entity by 15 countries, the Arab League, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, also used ammonium nitrate in the 1994 bombing of Argentina’s AMIA Jewish community center that killed 85 people.” For details see: “FDD | Hezbollah’s History with Ammonium Nitrate/ The Danger to Europe” from September 25, 2020

[15] Combi Lift GmbH in Bremen. Crewing company Combi Lift GmbH, retrieved on March 20, 2021

[16] For details see: “Beirut blast chemicals possibly linked to Syrian businessmen: report, company filings” by Ellen Francis, Tom Bergin and Maria Tsvetkova

 

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