European Company Paid ISIS to Stay Away From Syria Plant, Report Says

French company LalargeHolcim
Outgoing CEO of the French-Swiss construction materials giant LafargeHolcim, Eric Olsen looks on during a press conference following the company's annual meeting in Zurich on May 3, 2017. Eric Olsen stepped down following an internal investigation into the company's activities in Syria. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

A French-Swiss company allegedly paid the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) to stay away from one of its facilities in Syria after the group overran large areas of the country in 2014, witnesses have told a French court.

LafargeHolcim, one of the world's largest building materials manufacturers, owned the Jalabiya plant, 87 kilometers from the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa, until its evacuation in September 2014. The city had become the de facto capital of the group's so-called caliphate that year, after ISIS grew in influence across Syria.

French newspaper Le Monde has obtained access to details of an investigation into the activities of the company, reporting that at least one of the company's officials acknowledged paying funds to ISIS.

According to the newspaper, on June 29, 2014, just days before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the creation of the group's self-proclaimed caliphate, an executive of the company's cement factory in northern Syria told his superiors by email that he had set up an appointment with an "official of the Islamic State" to negotiate the safety of employees at the site.

It obtained the testimonies of nine top leaders at Lafarge. "Their hearings describe from the inside the mechanisms that have led the company to its judicial and moral sinking," Le Monde wrote. "They recount, month by month, the stubbornness of a group blinded by an obsession: not to abandon the cement plant…in order to retain a strategic advantage."

Allegations leveled at the company, whose CEO Eric Olsen stepped down in July after an internal investigation into activities at the plant, include that it indirectly financed extremist groups to keep its cement facility open until its evacuation in September 2014.

Le Monde reported that the company approved payments to the group and other militias in order to allow its facility to remain operational and, in June 2016, reported that the company paid $24,000 to ISIS to stay away from its factory.

French authorities are investigating the company after the country's Finance Ministry filed a complaint against LafargeHolcim over suspicions that it had had dealings with a sanctioned militant group. They are also probing whether the company provided the French government with forged documents to hide bribes to armed groups based in Syria.

Human rights groups in France have also filed lawsuits against the company, arguing that it is possibly complicit in the war crimes committed by ISIS if it paid the group large sums of money for protection.

The company's own internal investigation found that "a number of measures taken to continue safe operations at the Syrian plant were unacceptable, and significant errors of judgment were made that contravened the applicable code of conduct."

Internal investigators said that local managers at the plant were trying to keep the facility open for the staff present there: " Very simply, chaos reigned and it was the task of local management to ensure that the intermediaries did whatever was necessary to secure its supply chain and the free movement of its employees."

The report added: "The findings also confirm that, although these measures were instigated by local and regional management, selected members of group management were aware of circumstances indicating that violations of Lafarge's established standards of business conduct had taken place."

Olsen said of his stepping down when it was announced in April: "While I was absolutely not involved in, nor even aware of, any wrongdoing I believe my departure will contribute to bringing back serenity to a company that has been exposed for months on this case." He was not directly in charge of the Syria operations but, at the time, presided over control of wider operations at the company as a senior manager.