A year after a massive shipment of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut, an OCCRP investigation has settled one of the biggest lingering questions: who actually owned the cargo. These findings paint the fullest picture yet of the people & entities behind the ammonium nitrate that exploded on August 4, 2020, inflicting up to $8.2 billion of material & economic damage & helping to tip a country already struggling due to corruption & mismanagement into an outright crisis. A trail of documents reveals a decades-old chemical-trading network controlled by Ukrainians, hidden behind a veil of proxies and shell firms.
The investigation was well-received. Aljazeera English interviewed the OCCRP lead project editor. Jadeed TV in Lebanon interviewed the reporter & the senior MENA editor. OCCRP’s local media partner, Daraj,com, reported 20,000+ read the investigation. Several TV stations debated the findings & organized political talk shows. Two local media groups contacted OCCRP for help in setting up investigative units that publish stories of interest to the public & that holds power to account. Lebanese lawyers, led by Camille Abousleiman, are suing Savaro in the U.K. on behalf of the blast victims — 218 dead, 7,000 injured, 300,000+ homeless — arguing that the company bears significant responsibility. Abousleiman told Jadeed TV that the OCCRP investigation “and the data vis-à-vis the owner of the cargo is true. The owner of the company is Verbonol. We are trying to integrate the OCCRP investigation into our case.” The Ukrainian company has denied any involvement & laid the blame on Lebanese authorities. The results & the proceedings at the UK court will put direct pressure on Lebanon’s highly-politicized legal system to expose & try the culprits. Many believe the political elite bear responsibility after evidence emerged that senior officials were aware of the risks posed by the ammonium nitrate, but did nothing. Only low & mid-ranking port & customs officials have been charged. A local judge tried to charge senior officials w/negligence, including then prime minister Hassan Diab, but the judge was removed after pushback from the country’s political establishment. A new judge was appointed & is continuing inquiries.
Data was input into OCCRP’s Aleph. All collected documents, including registry documents, interview transcripts, shipping documents, and screenshots and page archives, was uploaded into a common space. We also used Aleph and OCCRP’s wiki (which uses Atlassian’s Confluence) to create a shared space for notes, create timelines, and build network diagrams. We used Hunchly for archiving webpages. Other tools: Ukrainian company database YouControl, Opencorporates, Website of company registries in the Marshall Islands, Arkansas, Cyprus, the United Kingdom, the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, Websites of Savaro group companies, MX Toolbox (https://mxtoolbox.com/)
Domaintools WhoIs Lookups, Linguee.pt
What was the hardest part of this project?
The Marshall Islands registry is run by a private company based in Virginia. They typically do not provide any documents; we got help from a local journalist to persuade the management to supply us with documents.Another problem was that some Savaro web archives were scrubbed from the Wayback Machine at the request of Savaro (we confirmed this by reaching out to the Internet Archive). We compensated for this by finding alternative domain names also used by the company, as well as results from their old websites in other languages. We were also able to find some fragments from deleted pages that were crawled and archived by a language translation website, Linguee.pt.
What can others learn from this project?
The 2020 Beirut explosion was a massive story, but the heat of this initial attention was not enough to solve key mysteries behind the tragedy. Global interest soon died off, and official investigations in Lebanon and elsewhere stalled due to political interference, a lack of international cooperation, or a lack of will. In such a situation, investigative journalists were some of the only people left with the time and interest to diligently work through this story. This story is a great demonstration of just how effectively journalists can work together when they form truly global, collegiate teams, and work together effectively using the right data tools. More than a year after the explosion, the owners of the cargo onboard the Rhosus thought no one had figured out who they were. They had covered up their tracks online and through shell companies, and could reasonably expect to put this story behind them. But that’s not how it worked out for them. The lesson for journalists is an important one: very few things are truly hidden. There are enough scraps of information scattered around the world. The key is building the right time, devoting the right amount of time, and working together in an open, trustful way so as to effectively share your work.