Beirut port blast: freed whistleblower returns to work despite alleged intimidation

Port official Joseph Naddaf said he was threatened weeks before the explosion

Beirut, Lebanon.- In the photo taken on August 4, 2020, a large blast has hit the Lebanese capital, Beirut, ahead of the verdict in a trial over the killing of ex-PM Rafik Hariri in 2005. Reports say the explosion was in the port area of the city, with unconfirmed reports of a second blast. It is not clear what caused them.

A Lebanese port official who warned his superiors about the dangers of stocking thousands of tonnes of ammonium nitrate at Beirut's port months before they blew up last August has told The National he has returned to work.

Major Joseph Naddaf, who set up an anti-corruption office at Beirut’s port in April 2019, was detained last September along with 24 other port officials and employees of private companies operating at the port, a little over a month after the August 4 explosion.

Investigative judge Tarek Bitar released Maj Naddaf and five others from pre-trial detention on April 15. Their release does not mean they are innocent, but nothing bars them from going back to work pending the trial at an exceptional court.

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"The whole window had crashed, and I found bullets under the house"

Maj Naddaf returned to State Security, one of Lebanon’s four intelligence bodies, but his office at the port had been destroyed in the blast. He has been working temporarily from a State Security building in the neighbourhood of Ashrafieh, east of Beirut, and expects to go back to the port in the coming days to a newly built office.

"I feel that I must return to the port. We need to rebuild," he told The National from his home in the capital's suburbs, nearly a year after the tragedy.

“The Lebanese people stood by me. It’s my responsibility towards them to continue my job.”

Ten people used to work under Maj Naddaf before the blast, and their number is expected to increase. He said he hopes the new office will be dedicated to his late colleague, Charbel Matta, who died in the explosion.

Maj Naddaf joined State Security in 2015, after a decade in the army’s commando regiment. He had wanted to join the army since the age of 14, after his father Milad, who was also in the army commando’s unit, was taken hostage and executed by an Islamist militant group in north Lebanon.

Maj Naddaf has been widely portrayed in local media as a wronged whistleblower and a diligent employee who tried to draw attention to dangers at the port. He said he wrote four reports between December 2019 and June 2020 about the ammonium nitrate stored at Beirut’s port.

In the reports, he detailed his fears about the chemicals being stolen to make explosives or exploding if they caught fire. Experts believe that the latter happened. Welding work allegedly ignited fireworks which in turn set fire to the chemicals, causing one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.

But top security and government officials who saw the reports took no action to remove the ammonium nitrate. Politicians have since traded blame.

The work of Maj Naddaf, a 35-year old father of two young children, is highly sensitive. The port is widely viewed as one of the most corrupt institutions in a country itself gripped by corruption. He spoke to The National after receiving authorisation from State Security chief Antoine Saliba, but refused to be recorded or to have his picture taken.

Maj Naddaf said he faced threats linked to his job weeks before the blast, when he came home one afternoon with his family to find that bullets had been fired at his flat.

“The whole window had crashed, and I found bullets under the house,” he said.

At the time, he interpreted the shooting as a warning to stop working on certain cases.

“I don’t think it was related to the nitrate but I’m sure that it was related to something that I was working on about corruption at port of Beirut,” he said. He declined to give further details because the cases are confidential.

The incident prompted him to install a dozen cameras around the apartment block. An investigation is ongoing at the Military Court.

Today, Maj Naddaf never drives to work at the same time in the morning and is always accompanied by at least one colleague in his car.

“I would not say that I am afraid, but I take precautions,” he said.

His wife, Cynthia Naddaf, 33, said she worries about his safety.

“When he was released, we were very afraid,” she recalled. “People were telling me that there was danger.”

Mrs Naddaf spoke to her husband’s superiors, who told her that they were taking the necessary measures.

There have been several murders linked to the port which received renewed attention since the blast.

The most prominent case is that of customs official colonel Josef Skaf, who died in suspicious circumstances in 2017 in what his family describes as murder. Col Skaf was the first to warn that the ammonium nitrate was “extremely dangerous,” three months after it arrived at Beirut port in 2013.

Akram Maalouf, the lawyer of a French-Lebanese engineer currently in pre-trial detention in the port probe, said he was not surprised to hear that Maj Naddaf was under pressure.

"Many aspects of the port explosion remain unclear. There's a clear interest in silencing those who know too much about the ammonium nitrate," he told The National.

An investigation by Lebanese television network Al Jadeed in January linked two Syrian businessmen under US sanctions for their ties to President Bashar Al Assad with the purchase of the dangerous chemicals.

Maj Naddaf said that he feels no bitterness today despite his eight-month long detention. “I trust judge Tarek Bitar. He works day and night,” he said.

“I think of those who died, who lost everything in the blast. In the end, I got to return home to my family. Others didn’t have that chance.”

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