Photo: The Lafarge cement plant in Jalabiya, Syria, in February. A panel of French judges is examining whether Lafarge and some former executives violated international sanctions by paying the Islamic State and other armed groups to keep operating. Credit…Delil Souleiman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

JI-Syria, A French judicial investigation found that Lafarge Cement Syria, a subsidiary of Lafarge, paid nearly 13 million euros to a range of armed groups operating in Syria, including Islamic State (IS). The accusations date back to 2012 to 2014, in the early years of Syria’s ongoing civil war. The payments were made to IS through a network of intermediaries. With the payments, Lafarge was attempting to keep its operations running and mitigate the risks of interference or other threats from IS. The IS model in Syria was to take over large swaths of territory and keep the industrial and business operations running, coercing employees to remain in place and working, which provided additional revenue streams as the terrorist group built its so-called caliphate. In addition to cement companies like Lafarge, IS targeted oil companies and other critical infrastructure across the conflict zones in Syria and Iraq.

Numerous former high-ranking executives, including two former chief executives, were indicted on charges of financing terrorism in 2018. These individuals are facing up to 10 years in prison if convicted. The company, which merged in 2015 with the Swiss building materials conglomerate Holcim, faces significant penalties if it is found guilty of aiding and abetting terrorism and crimes against humanity. A 2019 court ruling in France dismissed charges of complicity in crimes against humanity, but that ruling was overturned by France’s supreme court, which ordered a September 2021 retrial. Lafarge’s former CEO may also be ordered to stand trial. The French appeals court states that Lafarge had “financed, via its subsidiaries, Islamic State operations with several millions of euros in full awareness of its activities.” The group is designated as a terrorist group by multiple countries and the United Nations, as are many of its regional affiliates. At its peak, IS was the wealthiest terrorist group in history, having earned between two and three billion dollars from a range of revenue-generating activities.

The lawsuit against Lafarge was brought forth by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights along with a French anticorruption organization known as Sherpa, on behalf of 11 Syrian former employees of Lafarge. While Lafarge did evacuate many of its top executives working in Syria, Syrian employees were kept on site. In the lawsuit, the employees claim that they were pressured to work in dangerous conditions, even as they warned that conditions were worsening due to the ongoing civil war. When Islamic State militants attacked the Lafarge plant, located on Syria’s northern border with Turkey, the employees were forced to flee.

When corporations operate in conflict zones, they need to take into account a host of considerations, including employee safety, business continuity, and political relationships. Too often, as it appears to be with the Lafarge case, companies put profits above the safety of their employees, and their continued operations forged an association with a terrorist group and a brutal regime. Some human rights activists hope the Lafarge case will serve as a model for future prosecutions of multinational corporations accused of financing terrorism. The case is among the most extensive corporate criminal cases in France in years. Holcim had denied claims of responsibility and disagreed with the Court of Appeal’s decision. If Lafarge is ultimately indicted it would be precedent-setting, since no French company has been tried for crimes against humanity and the financing of terrorism.

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