How conspiracy theories surged after the Beirut explosion

While many nations and individuals are rallying to Lebanon’s side, others are using the disaster to pursue their own political aims

In the moments after an apocalyptic explosion ripped through the Lebanese capital on Tuesday evening, it was difficult to understand what had just happened. I stood with my neighbors in the parking lot of my building in the south-east of the city, ears ringing, trying to work out where the cloud of bright red smoke was coming from. All around us lay shards of shattered glass that had fallen from nearby buildings. Our windows, by some miracle, had been left intact.

For many of the 2.2 million Beirutis now reckoning with the aftermath of a disaster that has claimed more than 137 lives, injured 5,000 and left 300,000 homeless, that feeling of confusion has only been amplified by a torrent of supposition, conjecture and conspiracy theory. While the international community has rallied, pledging aid and mobilizing relief workers, a different story has been playing out online and in certain areas of public conversation, as media outlets, influencers and public figures rush to attribute blame. 

Long before search and rescue teams began to dig their way through tons of rubble, unsubstantiated ideas began to fly across social media. While many of them originated in Lebanon itself, a significant number have been spread by accounts and individuals based elsewhere.

Lebanese officials have stated that the blast was caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate — a volatile chemical compound used for fertilizers and explosives  — stored insecurely in a warehouse at the port. 

On Tuesday evening, however, U.S President Donald Trump expressed his sympathies to the people of Beirut, then said that the disaster looked “like a terrible attack.” Trump did not point directly to any particular nation or party, and defense officials have since refuted his assertion. However, during a Wednesday White House briefing, he once again suggested to reporters that the explosion had been caused deliberately. 

Initial reports in the Lebanese media suggested that a blast had also taken place outside the residence of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whose father and former prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated by a truck bomb 15 years ago.

While this may be a simple mistake, attributable to the several-mile-wide radius of Tuesday’s explosion, many were quick to seize upon the fact that the verdict of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s inquiry into Rafik Hariri’s killing was due to be delivered in the Hague on Friday. The suspects are four men affiliated with Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Shiite political party and militant group. 

For its breaking story on the explosion, the BBC directly linked the blast to the trial with the headline “Beirut blast leaves extensive damage ahead of Hariri verdict.” 

Theories rapidly spread about Hezbollah’s involvement, including a slew of tweets by Ghanem Nuseibeh, the U.K. and Dubai-based founder of management consultancy company Cornerstone Global Associates, who has more than 23,000 followers.

The Doha-based academic Marc Owen Jones has drawn attention to a number of Twitter accounts placing the blame squarely on Hezbollah, some purporting to be from India and elsewhere, and a trending hashtag linked to “Saudi-focused accounts, often active in disinfo or influence campaigns.”

Meanwhile, the Saudi-owned news network Al Arabiya has cited sources claiming that Beirut port was being used to store weapons belonging to Hezbollah.

A three-year-old video of Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah, in which he threatened to target ammonium nitrate stores in the Israeli city of Haifa, has also circulated widely on social media, with some taking it as evidence for the group’s responsibility for the disaster. 

As chaos gripped Beirut, local activist and blogger Gino Raidy tweeted, “What the fuck was that?” accompanied by a video of the blast. In the comments below, many stated with confidence that the explosion was the result of a nuclear bomb. This theory was picked up and spread by a number of partisan news sites, attributing the explosion to an attack by Israel, a country with which Lebanon has been officially at war since 1948. 

The U.S. conspiracy website Veterans Today, which has more than 37,000 followers on Twitter, posted a photograph of smoke rising above the city with the words “Israel: Nuke bombing of Beirut Retaliation Against Hezbollah Attack on Golan.”

This theory was enthusiastically embraced by many. Messages in Arabic claiming that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had claimed responsibility for an attack on Beirut spread rapidly on WhatsApp groups within the country. 

For many Lebanese, it was not a difficult idea to believe. Israeli bombardments razed large areas of Beirut in the month-long war of 2006, and tensions between Israel and Hezbollah have heightened in recent weeks

Many people close to the site of the explosion reported hearing a fighter jet flying low overhead shortly before, and videos purporting to show a missile or drone heading to the port were shared on various platforms.

In one private WhatsApp group that I belong to, members suggested that Israel’s offer to provide aid to Lebanon was a sign of its guilt.

Lebanese security chief Abbas Ibrahim, however, has dismissed the idea of Israel having any part in the explosion, as have Hezbollah officials. Israel also denied any involvement in the incident soon after it took place.

While speculation continues on social media and elsewhere, all the evidence so far appears to point to one thing: gross negligence on the part of the Lebanese authorities.

The ammonium nitrate had been stored at Beirut port’s Hangar 12 since 2014, when it was offloaded from a Russian-owned cargo ship named the MV Rhosus. The ship was forced to dock in Beirut in 2013 while travelling from Georgia to Mozambique, owing to financial difficulties.

Public documents show that customs officials at the port sent numerous letters to the Lebanese judiciary asking for the dangerous cargo to be removed. Their pleas were ignored and it remained in the warehouse. 

Many see the explosion as just the latest, and most deadly, example of the corruption and incompetence that has defined Lebanon’s politics for decades. 

Since October, thousands of Lebanese people have regularly taken to the streets to express their anger at what they see as an entrenched political elite that has driven the country to economic ruin. 

Previously, protesters had called for politicians to resign. In the days since the explosion, many have shared images of gallows or guillotines, accompanied by the hashtag “Hang up the nooses” in Arabic.

It may take weeks before a definitive cause of this catastrophe is established. Until then, unfounded speculation and wild conspiracy theories only distract from the urgent realities of a tragedy that has levelled a city already on its knees. 

Rayane Awkal, a 32-year-old NGO worker, who was in the now-ravaged Gemmayzeh district at the time of the blast, explained that many of the stories and videos that have proliferated on WhatsApp “are not helpful at all. I think every single person that was touched or was close to the explosions is already traumatized. It’s manipulative to spread these rumors.”

Then, considering the impact of fake news, she added that “the major problem here is that we don’t trust our government, so even when they attempt to set the record straight we never know.”

Photo by Patrick Baz/AFP via Getty Images

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Emily Lewis

Emily Lewis is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon.