Esper Says Beirut Explosions Likely Accident, Not Attack

Destroyed buildings are visible a day after a massive explosion occurred at the port in Beirut.
Destroyed buildings are visible a day after a massive explosion occurred at the port on Aug. 5, 2020 in Beirut, Lebanon. (Daniel Carde/Getty Images)

In a cautious initial assessment, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday that the massive and deadly explosions that devastated Beirut were most likely a tragic accident and not the result of a terrorist attack.

Esper said he was "still getting information on what happened" in Beirut Tuesday, but "most believe it was an accident as reported." Beyond that, he said, he had nothing further to add.

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His assessment contrasted with that of President Donald Trump, who said the explosions that killed at least 135 and injured thousands may have been caused by a "terrible attack. It would seem like it based on the explosion."

At a White House briefing Tuesday, shortly after the blasts sent up huge clouds of smoke and ash over the Lebanese capital, Trump raised the possibility that a bomb may have triggered the explosions in the port area..

"I've met with some of our great generals and they just seem to feel that it was not a -- some kind of manufacturing explosion type of event," Trump said. "This was a -- seems to be according to them, they would know better than I would, but they seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind."

In a virtual discussion on defense matters at the Aspen Security Forum, Esper said of the situation in Beirut that "It's really, really bad," and "It could have been much worse." He said his priority was on getting aid to the Lebanese people.

Esper said he spoke Wednesday morning with Secretary of State Pompeo on ways the Defense Department might assist.

"We're reaching out to the Lebanese government, have reached out," he said. Without giving details, he said the DoD was readying to offer "whatever assistance we can, humanitarian aid, medical supplies, you name it, to assist the people of Lebanon."

Pompeo later spoke by phone with Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab to express condolences and offer assistance, according to State Department officials.

In a readout of the call, State Department Principal Deputy Spokesperson Cale Brown said that Pompeo "reaffirmed our steadfast commitment to assist the Lebanese people as they cope with the aftermath of this terrifying event."

In statements, Diab has said that the main force of the explosions came from more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at a waterfront warehouse for at least six years.

Diab and other Lebanese officials said a fire at a nearby fireworks factory may have set off the ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer that is also used as a component in explosives used for mining.

Ammonium nitrate mixed with fuel was used by Timothy McVeigh in the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

Related: Fireworks, Ammonium Nitrate Likely Fueled Beirut Explosion

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