Report Ties Ship That Carried Explosive Material in Beirut Blast to Hezbollah

Beirut
-/AFP via Getty Images

The German newspaper Der Spiegel published a report this weekend claiming that the ship suspected of bringing 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate to the Port of Beirut in 2013 had ties to a bank involved in laundering money for Hezbollah, the Iran-backed terrorist organization and Lebanese political party.

Authorities believed the ship in question, MV Rhosus, belonged to a Russian businessman named Igor Grechuskhin who declared bankruptcy not long after coast guard officials in Lebanon impounded the ship for mechanical violations and transferred its dangerous cargo of chemical fertilizer to a warehouse, where it remained until it exploded in early August, killing over 120 people and damaging half the city.

Der Spiegel, in cooperation with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), argued the true owner of the Rhosus was not Grechuskhin but a Cypriot businessman named Charalambos Manoli.

Manoli appears to have taken some pains to conceal ownership, but he admitted to OCCRP that while Grechuskhin offered to buy the Rhosus from him, the deal never actually went through. In Der Spiegel’s telling, Grechushkin chartered the ship for the ill-fated shipment of ammonium nitrate and managed the voyage, but Manoli owned the vessel all along.

Der Spiegel’s report further challenged the narrative that the Rhosus was on its way from Russian Georgia to Mozambique when it failed a port inspection in Beirut and got stuck there, its cargo seized after Grechushkin failed to pay its bills. Instead, the investigative report suggested many details of the Rhosus’ voyage were staged or fabricated and its true purpose was to deliver the highly explosive ammonium nitrate to Hezbollah.

A key piece of evidence presented by Der Spiegel to tie Manoli to Hezbollah is that unlike Grechuskhin, the Cypriot businessman has business ties in Lebanon, and in 2011 he took out a $4 million loan to buy another ship from a bank based in Tanzania called FBME.

“FBME isn’t just any bank. American investigators have accused the institution of acting as a money launderer for Hezbollah. Another of the bank’s customers was a suspected Syrian front company that had been involved in the country’s chemical weapons program. It was to this bank that Manoli owed money,” the article said.

“Internal FBME documents show that Manoli still owed the bank 962,000 euros in outstanding debt in October 2014. Manoli denies any connection between his debts and the fact that the freighter was stopped in Beirut. However, one investigator notes that FBME is notorious for pressuring defaulting borrowers into doing favors for dubious customers like Hezbollah,” Der Spiegel added.

FBME issued a statement for publication denying any untoward activity and denying that it sought to use the Rhosus as collateral for another loan, although it confirmed that it has done business with Manoli and his company, SeaForce Marine Ltd.:

Neither FBME, the Saab family, nor their associates had any involvement with the MV Rhosus. FBME Bank did provide, in around 2012, a loan to SeaForce Marine Ltd, owned by Mr. Charalambos Manoli, for the purchase of the MV Sakhalin. This loan was accordingly secured against the MV Sakhalin, which has since been scrapped. Neither Mr Manoli nor SeaForce Marine Ltd made any repayments towards the loan, and the Bank initiated legal proceedings against them. Since the Administrators took over the Bank in July 2014, we are unaware of the current status of the case. The MV Rhosus was never collateral for the loan and FBME Bank never had any involvement either with its financing or ownership. We believe these allegations are commercially motivated and confirm that we have no relationship with Hezbollah. [Updated with statement reprinted in full.]

Two other suspicious details unearthed by Der Spiegel are that the purported buyer of the ammonium nitrate in Mozambique, a company called FEM, has been investigated for ties to Islamic terrorism, and that no one has actually stepped forward to claim ownership of the ammonium nitrate cargo — Lebanese officials never even formally confiscated it. Roughly $700,000 worth of dangerous chemicals supposedly sat in a warehouse for six years, as forgotten as the Rhosus, said to have succumbed to its many leaks and sank outside the Port of Beirut in 2018, claimed by neither Grechushkin nor Manoli.

Some customs officials in Beirut did care about the abandoned cargo, and they very much wanted to get rid of it, but Der Spiegel reported that petitions to remove the chemicals were “sent to the wrong court so persistently that it is difficult for lawyers involved to believe in mere incompetence.”

The implication is that Hezbollah wanted the substance to remain at the port so they could use it for bomb-making. As Der Spiegel and OCCRP investigators noted, there is no way to be certain all 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate were present and accounted for when the explosion struck; some of it could have been siphoned away for nefarious purposes over the years. The last time the abandoned cargo was inspected in the spring of 2020, the inspectors noticed “one of the warehouse’s gates was missing and there was a large hole in the south wall,” but apparently no one checked to see if any of the ammonium nitrate was missing. 

Furthermore, European intelligence officials have estimated the stupendous explosion that horrified the world was not big enough to represent 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate blowing up. The Beirut blast appeared to involve 700 to 1,000 tons, meaning more than half of the Rhosus cargo is unaccounted for.

AFP found Hezbollah in a precarious position in Lebanese politics, with public anger growing so intense after the Beirut blast that formerly untouchable leader Hassan Nasrallah has been mocked and hanged in effigy.

“A widely shared meme had a screen grab of Nasrallah choking back tears over the killing of Iranian spymaster Qasem Soleimani in a US drone strike in Iraq earlier this year, contrasting with another of him looking composed and smiling after the Beirut blast,” AFP reported, referring to Nasrallah’s emotional response when a U.S. strike killed Iranian terror mastermind Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil in January.

The Times of Israel (TOI) cited another report from last week that Iran provided Hezbollah with about 670 tons of ammonium nitrate in 2013. This report speculated the Rhosus cargo might not have been directly ordered or held by the terrorist organization, but instead Hezbollah loyalists working at the port might have hoarded it because they thought Hezbollah would be interested in it.

“A Channel 13 report earlier this month claimed Hezbollah planned to use the ammonium nitrate stockpile that caused the blast at Beirut’s port against Israel in a ‘Third Lebanon War’ that may come in the future. It did not cite sources,” TOI added.

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