How online investigators pieced together the events of the Beirut blast

Online investigators looked into the Beirut explosion that took place on August 4, 2020.
Online investigators looked into the Beirut explosion that took place on August 4, 2020. © Nick Waters and Mohammad Hijazi on Twitter

Just after the explosion at Beirut’s port on August 4, 2020, eyewitness videos began to pour into social networks. The videos were indispensable to clarify what exactly happened in the Lebanese capital, allowing online investigators to look into the causes of the blast before any official explanations were released. One year later, the FRANCE 24 Observers team asked some of these investigators to explain how they used the videos and open-source information to piece together the day’s events. 

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They didn’t wait for official announcements or press releases to get to the bottom of what happened. From the first moments that videos of the explosion appeared online, the Twitter community of amateur investigators sprang into action. They use open-source investigation (OSINT), harnessing the power of publically available information and tools to confirm their findings. 

One hour after the incident, Nick Waters, with the investigative collective Bellingcat, used amateur video footage to geolocate the epicentre of the blast: warehouse 12 in the Port of Beirut. It later emerged that the warehouse held 500 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical. 

On August 4, 2020, Bellingcat’s Nick Waters published his investigation into the Beirut blast in a Twitter thread, later assembled into an article on Bellingcat’s site.

While the Lebanese authority’s investigation was at a standstill, open-source investigations, like those of Bellingcat and Le Monde, were crucial for understanding the source of the explosion.

Forensic Architecture, a research collective made up of researchers, architects and software developers, published a video investigation on November 17, 2020 using architectural modelling to reconstruct the explosion minute-by-minute. The team shed light on how the materials stored in warehouse 12, despite safety regulations, became a ticking time bomb. 

Plenty of others from various professions and backgrounds added to the pool of knowledge. One of them was Martin Pfeiffer, a PhD candidate in anthropology, who started debunking rumours that the blast was a nuclear explosion.

In this thread published August 4, 2020, Martin Pfeiffer analysed images of the Beirut explosion to show that it wasn’t a nuclear blast.

Others, like researcher Nathan Ruser, examined amateur images that claimed the blast was caused by a missile attack. Ruser was able to show that the supposed “missile” was just a bird flying over the explosion site. 

‘I followed local journalists, I am lucky enough to speak Arabic, which helped me to follow what was happening’

On Twitter, Casus Belli was one of the first users to post about the explosion in French. With a military background and passion for geopolitics, he created his Twitter account in May 2020 to publish photos and videos of international news events. He told the FRANCE 24 Observers team how he found and verified images of the explosion.

In the ‘trending’ category on Twitter – a tool that has helped me a lot – I saw that something was happening in Lebanon. When the first images started to come in, sometimes posted by ordinary people, where you could see a huge explosion, it was bizarre. Looking at the videos people were posting on Snapchat, I knew something big was going on. 

In this Twitter thread from August 4, 2020, Casus Belli published news and images of the explosion as they came in.

At the time, I didn’t have a lot of visibility. I followed local journalists, and I’m lucky enough to speak Arabic, which helped me to follow what was happening. What I’m doing isn’t the job of a professional, academic or journalist, because I don’t have a degree in that, but it’s something that I tried my hand at. I got interested in the topic, I dug into it, and I tried to be as meticulous as possible.

In general, I try to verify images by doing reverse image searches, on Google or Yandex, or even some Chinese search engines, to see if they are already online. In the case of Beirut, there was a certain consistency in the videos. The fact that there were a lot of videos appearing all of a sudden, from lots of different angles, gave a level of credibility to the images.

>> Read on The Observers: Misinformation spreads after Lebanon blast: Missile, drone, nuclear warhead?

I discovered this whole world [on Twitter]: there are some really passionate people. It’s as if we had a sort of investigation group made up of volunteers who, just from their job and their passion, manage to accumulate knowledge that allows us to have precise information – sometimes even better than the professionals. 

Thanks to his coverage of the Beirut explosion, Casus Belli’s Twitter following grew from 2,000 to 11,000 in just one day.

‘Our approach is to get away from this idea that you can only investigate current events if you’re a journalist’

On August 4, 2020 and the days that followed, members of French association OpenFacto, which promotes open-source investigation for the media and NGOs, also tried to elucidate what happened in Beirut, publishing some of their findings in a Twitter thread

A member of the association, who wished to remain anonymous, told the FRANCE 24 Observers team what motivated them to investigate the explosion:

Beirut is a city that’s very close to my heart. It was a purely emotional reaction, but it is in line with the way we work at OpenFacto: we usually work on subjects that are near and dear to us. 

In this part of the world, the first question you ask yourself is: was it an accident, or an act of sabotage, an act of terrorism? First, we asked where the explosion took place and who was impacted. These are the basic questions: who, what, where and why. Everyone filmed the event on their phones, so that gave us access to lots of images from different angles. After that, you just had to look on a map to see where it happened. It was relatively easy, because there was water, so we knew it was near the sea, and we could see the shape of the harbour. It only took us a few minutes.

We also looked at which company was affected. This was more difficult because we had to search in Arabic. We looked on maps, we looked in Lebanon’s official trade registers. Then we tried to find articles in the press that mentioned chemical products at the port, and we realised they had been stored there for some time.

This tweet, published on August 4, 2020, shows a document mentioning a warehouse at the Port of Beirut “for hazardous goods”. Another user responded, matching up the dimensions of the warehouse in question with the one that exploded.

The work of collaborative investigations is really rich, because we put together several different minds, all of which work in different ways and suggest different angles of attack to answer the same question. Each person, with their own experience, will ask a different question. And we put all our hands together to work faster.

The approach of OpenFacto is also to get away from this idea that you can only investigate current events if you’re a journalist. The OSINT community is rich with extremely different profiles, and when everyone works together at the same table, we can react very quickly. 

Amnesty International accused Lebanese authorities of "shamelessly" obstructing the investigation into the blast, which led to more than 200 deaths. One year later, no one has been brought to justice.

In a report published August 3, 2021, Human Rights Watch also accused Lebanese officials of “longstanding corruption and mismanagement”, allowing the tonnes of ammonium nitrate to be unsafely stored at the port.

Residents of Beirut are still suffering the consequences of the blast, considered one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions in history. 

>> Follow FRANCE 24’s coverage of the Beirut explosion, one year later