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World 'ISIS is coming!' how a French company pushed the limits in war-Torn Syria

PARIS — Mostafa Haji Mohamad, a medical worker, was just starting the morning shift at a cement factory in Syria when gunfire rattled across the desert. The air was stifling, and he and the other employees were on edge.

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For months, they had worked to the percussion of distant fighting as the Islamic State waged fierce battles in the autumn of 2014 to seize territory in Syria’s rapidly escalating civil war.

Their employer, one of the world’s largest cement makers, Lafarge, didn’t want to abandon the plant, but aimed to keep it running so it would be well positioned when the civil war ended. And the men, all local workers, had few other options for employment in a country where conflict was ravaging the economy.

Security managers urged the workers not to worry. Safety was a priority, they insisted. If the fighting got too close, Lafarge had an evacuation plan that included buses to get them out in case of danger.

As the men gathered that morning in a sweltering hall, Mohamad’s supervisor, the factory’s doctor, called with a frantic warning. Islamic State fighters had just taken the village closest the factory. “You’ve got to get out of there,” the supervisor said. “ISIS is coming!”

Mohamad and the rest of the employees ran outside. The evacuation buses were not there.

So they piled, one on top of the other, into two small cars and a delivery van. Mohamad jumped onto a rickety scooter and puttered nervously across the desert as explosions rang out.

They all got away. By nightfall, the Islamic State had captured the factory.

“What I want to know,” Mohamad said of Lafarge in an interview, “is why did they leave us there to face our deaths?”

While other multinational companies pulled out of Syria in the midst of the civil war, Lafarge made a calculated decision to stay, pushing the limits of international law to keep its operations running. Lafarge’s actions, reconstructed from sealed French court documents reviewed by The New York Times as well as interviews with former employees, provide rare insight into the costs and complexities of doing business in a war-torn country, trade-offs that have left a large company exposed to a French criminal investigation as well as a lawsuit.

To move supplies and employees through dangerous areas, and to secure raw materials, Lafarge funneled money to intermediaries who conducted negotiations with the Islamic State, as well as al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria and other armed factions. All told, Lafarge agents shelled out more than $5 million to armed groups, according to the documents, which include testimony to investigators by former Lafarge officials, testimony and witness accounts of former employees, company correspondence and a confidential internal review of Lafarge’s Syria operations by the global law firm Baker McKenzie. The broad accounts of the former workers’ experience were backed up by the documents, including the executives’ and employees’ testimony.

But the money didn’t always ensure the safety of Lafarge’s workers or its operations. Between 2012 and the end of 2014, at least a dozen workers were kidnapped, according to testimony and witness statements of former employees, company documents and the internal review. Employees faced gun-toting militants when they went to work. And the factory — one of the biggest foreign investments in Syria — was captured anyway. It has been shuttered ever since.

A panel of French judges appointed by the Paris High Court, which oversees criminal investigations, is looking into whether Lafarge put workers at risk and violated international sanctions by paying the Islamic State and other armed groups to keep operating as war bore down. Six former top Lafarge officials, including two former chief executives, are being formally investigated under charges of financing terrorism.

The judges, who decide whether cases go to trial, are also examining a lawsuit by Sherpa, a French anti-corruption organization that pursues humanitarian abuses by corporations, on behalf of former employees alleging Lafarge was complicit in war crimes. The employees, in the lawsuit, claim that the company ignored the dangers they faced, and pressured them to keep working.

“Lafarge acted as if it was above the law,” said Marie-Laure Guislain, head of litigation at Sherpa. “But it played a role in an armed conflict, as well as in the violation of human rights, and must be held accountable.”

The Sherpa lawsuit helped prompt the French investigation, as did reports on Lafarge’s activities by the French newspaper Le Monde.

All of the former Lafarge executives have denied the charges against them, which could be dropped if judges find the evidence insufficient. If prosecuted, the executives could face penalties of up to 10 years in jail and fines of 225,000 euros (nearly $277,000). Authorities will also determine whether the company itself can be held liable. The activity occurred before Lafarge merged with the Swiss cement giant Holcim in 2015.

Eric Olsen resigned as chief executive last year after the internal inquiry, although Lafarge concluded that he was not responsible for, or aware of, the activity. In the United States, the company, now called LafargeHolcim after the merger, dropped plans to supply building materials for President Donald Trump’s proposed wall on the border with Mexico amid criticism in France over the Syria affair.

LafargeHolcim, in a statement to The Times, insisted that the No. 1 priority of Lafarge executives was to guarantee employee safety, and pinned the decisions on local managers who “wrongly believed” they were acting in the interests of the company and its employees. The company acknowledged “unacceptable errors committed in Syria,” and said that it “deeply regrets what happened.”

It also said that while the use of an intermediary was a “serious concern,” its internal review “could not establish with certainty the ultimate recipients of the funds.”

LafargeHolcim’s chief executive, Jan Jenisch, said the company is cooperating with French authorities. “I am the most interested person that truth comes out and we can close this chapter, which we are very sorry about,” he said during a presentation of the company’s results last week.

In its statement, LafargeHolcim added it had put in place extensive reviews and controls “to ensure that LafargeHolcim today is a different company with further enhanced compliance.”

Mohamad and the other workers, all of whom survived, are trying to rebuild their lives. Many had to flee Syria, becoming refugees in Turkey and Europe. While some managed to get jobs, others struggled.

For a while, Dr. Adham Basho, the Lafarge employee who warned Mohamad, lived with his wife, children and 18 other families in a Turkish refugee facility after leaving Syria. He has found only odd jobs to support his family. Hisham Haji Osman, an information technology specialist, made it to Germany and is still trying to land permanent work. Mohamad is living as a refugee in Turkey, unable to return home while war persists.

‘We Kept Going’

When Lafarge bought a dilapidated factory in northern Syria in 2007, one of the biggest advantages was a local partner with ties to President Bashar Assad’s government. The partner, Firas Tlass, an influential tycoon, could navigate back channels in a country with murky rules and bureaucracy. He arranged an operating license and other permits for Lafarge.

Founded in 1833 as a family business in France, Lafarge had a history of landing big and complicated projects. In the mid-19th century, it won a contract to build the Suez Canal in Egypt. During World War II, it helped furnish cement for the construction of a massive coastal wall of bunkers for the Nazis, known as the Atlantic Wall, that stretched from Scandinavia to the Spanish border.

In Syria, Lafarge saw a new opening to the Middle East. After a three-year renovation of the 680 million-euro plant, Lafarge Cement Syria opened in October 2010, employing hundreds and generating thousands of related jobs. Trucks and vans crisscrossed the desert, transporting employees, delivering Lafarge cement and bringing in fuel and raw materials from nearby quarries.

As operations ramped up, a wave of revolutionary fervor from the Arab Spring movement swept the region. Anti-government protests spread to Syria, and were brutally suppressed in March 2011 by government security forces.

Soldiers from Syria’s army defected and, along with civilians who took up arms, formed rebel groups to battle the government, some of them loosely organized as the Free Syrian Army. The government responded by attacking rebel-held areas, in an increasingly complex and bloody conflict that continues to batter the country.

While the fighting took root in the south, the security around the Lafarge plant in the north slowly began to deteriorate. Free Syrian Army groups moved into the area, long controlled by Assad’s government, along with the militia of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD. By the end of 2011, the United Nations declared Syria in a state of civil war, and the European Union placed an embargo on arms and oil purchases in Syria.

After that, Total, the French oil giant, halted its Syrian operations. Other French multinationals followed, including Bel Group, the maker of Babybel cheese, and Air Liquide, France’s largest gas company.

Not Lafarge. Bruno Lafont, the Lafarge chief executive at the time, saw no reason to leave. Company security advisers assured bosses at headquarters in Paris that the plant was not in a combat zone and remained safe. “So we kept going,” Lafont told investigators, according to the court documents. “Lafarge has never run away.”

By summer 2012, the situation in Syria had grown increasingly uncertain, and Lafarge decided to move hundreds of foreign employees out of the country for their safety. Senior managers, including Bruno Pescheux, chief executive of Lafarge Cement Syria at the time, relocated to Cairo to oversee operations remotely. The Syrian employees kept working. Their job was to keep the cement flowing — and to make the factory appear occupied as a way of discouraging militants from raiding it.

Lafarge said it wanted to keep providing jobs for locals who eagerly wanted to work. The company relocated employees to Manbij, a town near the plant, and provided lodging for others inside the factory compound so they could keep working as road travel grew more risky, according to testimony by former executives and employees. When the civil war ended, “we’d at least have an operation that could furnish cement for the reconstruction of Syria,” Pescheux told French investigators.

Workers felt fortunate to be employed by a major French multinational that offered good salaries to support their families in a region with few opportunities. Yet as the situation grew starker, Lafarge’s local managers, the employees said in interviews, witness accounts and testimony, turned up the pressure, threatening to dismiss or cut the pay of those who balked at the worsening safety environment.

“Before the war, the management practices were very good,” said Jarir Yahyaalmullaali, a former warehouse keeper. But later, he added, “they would force you to go to work and threaten to dismiss you even if there were problems and the roads were dangerous.”

After their foreign colleagues were evacuated, the Syrian employees discussed forming a union or striking to protest deteriorating work conditions. They were especially upset about being ferried in Lafarge-contracted vans through checkpoints held by a rotating cast of armed militants, the employees said in interviews, testimony and accounts submitted to the court.

“Imagine the journey,” said Nidal Wahbi, a former Lafarge human resources manager in Syria who is part of the lawsuit. “You could be stopped at any time, and either they let you go, or they could take you from the car for questioning.” When sniper bullets grazed his vehicle one morning, “I realized for the first time how unsafe it was,” he said. “But the next day, you had to go through the same road, because Lafarge would ask why you didn’t go to work.”

A Growing Threat

When the fighting got too close, the payments to the Islamic State started to flow.

In mid-2012, local Lafarge executives provided the Syrian partner with a monthly budget of around $100,000. They gave him instructions to act as an intermediary with local groups to ensure safe passage around the factory, Pescheux told investigators.

The partner, Tlass, according to the law firm’s review, steered large sums to the Free Syrian Army, which occupied Manbij, where Lafarge had relocated employees. More money flowed to the Kurds, who had worked with the Free Syrian Army and promised military-style protection for the factory, which they considered to be in their territory.

The payoffs didn’t guarantee safety. In autumn, the Kurds kidnapped nine Lafarge employees and transferred them to local militias. Lafarge’s local managers reported the kidnappings to Paris and spent around 200,000 euros to secure their release, according to the internal inquiry and testimony of former executives.

The troubles worsened in 2013, when the Qaida affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, and other Islamic groups seized Raqqa, a strategic city about 56 miles south of the factory. In the ensuing months, a schism within al-Qaida split the Nusra Front from the Islamic State group, which took control of Raqqa. The Islamic State began a slow but steady push toward the region around the Lafarge plant.

Soon, the fixer, Tlass, was funneling around $20,000 a month to the Islamic State, and additional funds to the Nusra Front, to ensure that they, too, wouldn’t interfere with Lafarge’s employees and supplies, according to the court documents.

Money was also paid to obtain raw materials from Islamic State-held areas. By steering the payoffs through the fixer, “there were never any direct links with ISIS,” Christian Herrault, a former Paris-based deputy chief executive responsible for Syria, told the investigators in France. When investigators asked if Lafarge had paid Islamist groups, he replied, “Indirectly, yes.”

Local managers tried to mask the payments with fake invoices signed by Herrault. Yet the payments were telegraphed in monthly security committee meetings between officials at Lafarge headquarters and the Syrian affiliate, according to the internal inquiry and testimony by former executives. Minutes of the meetings were distributed to other Lafarge officials, including the chief executive, Lafont.

One memo dated Sept. 11, 2013, which was part of the court documents, described how the Islamic State’s growing presence had become a “main threat” to business. “It becomes more and more difficult to operate without being required to directly or indirectly negotiate with these networks classified as terrorist networks by international organizations and the USA,” the memo concluded.

Another security meeting memo, dated Oct. 15, 2013, described more blockages by the Islamic State, the Nusra Front and the Kurds, before noting that “negotiations with the various actors” had allowed the flow of supplies and employees to resume.

At checkpoints now held by the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, the factory’s suppliers had only to mention “Lafarge” to pass, two employees told The Times, an account also given in their lawsuit. But workers still had to endure nerve-racking checks. “You were asked questions like, ‘Do you pray?'” said Osman, the former information technology specialist. “It was a check to see if they will keep you alive, kill you or arrest you.”

On June 29, 2014, the Islamic State declared a caliphate in Syria and Iraq. The same day, the factory’s senior risk manager alerted his superiors in an email to a meeting he had set up with a “head of the Islamic State.” He wanted to ensure that Lafarge’s deals with the group would be maintained, according to the court documents.

Soon after, drivers ferrying plant materials were handed new passes at Islamic State checkpoints. At first, “it was a simple note from ISIS, written by hand,” said Osman, an account he also gave in accounts submitted to the court. “And then it became an official document that was already printed and had to be renewed and stamped every day,” he added. “The deal between ISIS and Lafarge became systematic.”

‘Into the Tunnels’

Two weeks after the Islamic State declared its caliphate, the air rumbled from the sound of a distant blast. Islamic State militants had detonated a truck bomb at a Turkish-owned cement plant.

Lafarge temporarily halted production and told most workers to stay home, according to testimony by the former employees and executives. But local managers ordered an essential team of around 30 people, including Osman, to remain. By early August 2014, the Syrian partner, Tlass, claimed he had negotiated a new agreement with both Islamic State and Kurdish militants that would allow the factory to resume production.

Lafarge continued the payments to the Islamic State through Tlass until the United Nations banned commercial and financial dealings with the group on Aug. 15, according to the internal review. Without the protection afforded by the payments, Lafont advised the executive board that the plant would need to close, probably in September.

It was still operating in the middle of September, as fighting in the region intensified. When Islamic State assaults against Kurdish forces became more violent, villages near the plant began to empty.

Local executives again ordered an essential team of about 30 workers to keep the plant running, and began sending others home. On Sept. 17, 2014, evacuation buses, a crucial piece of the company’s security plan, took nonessential workers back to Manbij.

But the buses never returned to the factory, as planned. Kurdish forces, occupied by the battle with the Islamic State, would not let them pass, according to testimony by Jean-Claude Veillard, head of safety operations at Lafarge in Paris.

The next day, Frédéric Jolibois, a new chief executive of Lafarge Syria who had recently taken the helm, emailed the plant’s supervisors a security plan that he had devised, according to a copy of the message included in court documents.

The plan instructed plant managers to hide employees in a warren of tunnels beneath the factory if attacked. “Prepare mattresses, food, water, sugar in the electric tunnels of the factory,” Jolibois wrote in the email. “If attackers enter the factory, move the team into the tunnels and wait.”

The following morning, as the team gathered inside the plant, the factory’s doctor called to warn that the Islamic State was close. Basho said he had heard from the factory’s manager, who was supposed to be at the plant, but had fled to take his family to safety in Turkey. “If we had waited there, we would be dead by now,” said Yahyaalmullaali, the former warehouse keeper.

LafargeHolcim, in its statement, said its internal investigation “showed that the safety of those on site was a constant concern of management and there was an evacuation plan in place.”

Amid the chaos, Islamic State militants kidnapped two of Lafarge’s Christian employees, according to internal Lafarge documents and the internal review. They were released only after they agreed to convert to Islam and to attend religious courses.

Publicly, Lafarge painted a better picture of the dire event. The factory had been seized by the Islamic State, the company announced in a news release at the time, but Lafarge had succeeded in evacuating all of its remaining people.

But officials acknowledged to French investigators that the remaining Syrian employees had to flee on their own. Jolibois said Lafarge did not expect the situation to deteriorate so rapidly. “For what it’s worth, in another cement factory that didn’t belong to Lafarge, ISIS beheaded about 50 employees,” he told investigators.

In its statement to The Times, LafargeHolcim said Lafarge Syria “maintained its operations as long as the plant and its employees could remain secure.” It added that former employees were put on paid leave for more than 12 months after the closing of the site.

The money has not assuaged the Lafarge employees who believed they were scrambling to save their own lives in those final hours at the factory.

Many were angered when Jolibois sent them an upbeat message shortly after the evacuation.

“Probably the things did not run perfectly or as good as planned, but nevertheless we achieved this key goal,” he wrote, according to an internal Lafarge email seen by The Times. “Lafarge Cement Syria is not dead. I am convinced that we will win the final battle.”

As a response, one of the survivors sent a follow-up email to Lafarge officials on behalf of other employees, denouncing Jolibois’ message as “full of lies.”

In it, the employees asked Lafarge to carry out an internal investigation into why workers were left to fend for themselves as the Islamic State advanced.

The employees said Lafarge officials never responded. “The factory was the only thing they cared about,” Mohamad said. “But Lafarge should be a lesson for Western companies in foreign countries: They should treat people working for them like human beings.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

LIZ ALDERMAN, ELIAN PELTIER and HWAIDA SAAD © 2018 The New York Times

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