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Sensemaker audio

Sinister cement

Sinister cement

When Syria descended into a bloody and brutal civil war ten years ago, many multinational companies pulled out of the country. One stayed. Now, it’s facing allegations that it was complicit in crimes against humanity.


Transcript

Nimo Omer, narrating: Hi, I’m Nimo – and this is Sensemaker – from tortoisemedia.com

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, a story about war, terrorism, big money…and cement.

When Syria descended into a bloody and brutal civil war ten years ago, a lot of multinational companies pulled out of the country. It was too difficult – and too dangerous – to stay. 

But one company decided to keep doing business: 

“In early 2012, the Syrian conflict intensified in the country’s north and many french factories decided to close, but not LaFarge, it wanted to keep its cement factory up and running.” 

France24

Why did that one factory stay open when there was chaos all around and so many others had closed? 

There’s so much more to this story than meets the eye – not just about business and money, but about intelligence-gathering and spying as well.

In the end, LaFarge’s factory in northern Syria stayed open until 2014. Militants from the Islamic State group had been getting closer and closer – and eventually they seized that part of the country. 

And keeping the business going through all that came at a terrible price:

“Since 2017 French judges have been investigating whether LaFarge paid armed groups including ISIL $15m in protection money to keep the plant running between 2012 and 2014 at the height of Syria’s civil war.”

AlJazeera

The accusation against LaFarge and its executives is that to keep operating they had to pay terrorists, violate trade embargos, and endanger the lives of their staff. Just last week, things got even worse: France’s top court decided that the company can face another serious charge too – complicity in crimes against humanity. 

LaFarge denies everything – although they admit to giving money to militants.

And so the question that I’m left with is – did they do all this for good reasons or bad?

***

“We asked the company to stop the work but they did not stop. The company bears responsibility for all those who were arrested, killed or kidnapped.”

Al Jazeera

Mostafa Cheikh Nouh used to work at the LaFarge factory. He says the company should have acted sooner to keep its employees safe.

Foreign staff at the plant were evacuated in 2012, but for two more years Syrian employees kept on making cement. All the while, fighting got closer and closer and closer. 

***

The factory was in the middle of territory being fought over by different militia groups, by the Free Syrian Army and by the group that became the most notorious and successful in Syria, the Islamic State. 

The plant was only 55 miles away from the city of Raqqa, which, you might remember, was this IS stronghold in northern Syria. It’s where they set up their headquarters. And it was a terrifying place to live – with brutal punishments and public beheadings to keep people in line. 

There was really no way of doing business in that part of Syria without making deals with militia groups and terrorist organisations.


And that’s what investigators say LaFarge’s Syrian operation did. They’re accused of negotiating with IS to buy oil and other goods. And of paying millions of dollars to armed groups:

“Investigators say the payments were considered a tax in exchange for which militants allowed free movement of the company’s staff and goods inside the war zone.”

DW

Reports say LaFarge was paying as much as $20,000 a month to keep IS away from the factory – and so that the militants would let workers safely through checkpoints.

But for employees like Mostafa Cheikh Nouh, it hardly felt safe. Travelling to work through militant territory was often a terrifying ordeal.

One of the NGOs bringing the case against LaFarge says some factory workers were kidnapped by armed groups – and some were murdered. 

Why did LaFarge take such massive gambles with people’s lives?

***

One argument is that this was all about cold hard cash. LaFarge had put a lot of money into the Syrian factory. 


“At the time when it was first built actually, in 2008, the LaFarge cement factory was the largest single foreign investment project in syria ever it caused lavage more than $680 million at the time actually to build one of the largest and most modern cement factories not only in Syria but in the entire Middle East”

Marwan Kabalan, Al Jazeera

It was a huge operation and they didn’t want to abandon it. 

LaFarge executives justified it another way. They said they were providing services Syria really needed: work for local people and cement for building projects. 

But there might have been another reason they stayed for so long…intelligence.

LaFarge is a really powerful company in France. It’s got close ties to the government.  

There’s evidence to suggest French authorities knew LaFarge was making payments to IS. 

Journalists who’ve investigated the company speculated early on that there could’ve been a good reason for the French to turn a blind eye to what LaFarge was doing in Syria: 

“Then you wonder, why did they prefer ignoring the case? Maybe it was useful for them to have a French company when most other companies had left. It was maybe a way for them to collect information.”

Dorothee Kellou, France 24

Last week, the Guardian newspaper revealed that those theories might be true. 

A former spy told them the factory was used as a base for gathering information. 

The Islamic State had a policy of kidnapping westerners and holding them to ransom. If no ransom money was paid the victims were beheaded and the videos of their murder were uploaded on social media.

So western governments were desperate for information about as many as 30 people who’d been captured by IS, including British photographer John Cantlie and American journalist James Foley. 

Delivery men brought supplies to the plant – and intelligence too. They revealed that the hostages were being held at an oil factory near Raqqa. 

Tragically a rescue mission arrived too late to find them. They’d already been moved. James Foley was later executed by IS fighters. We still don’t know for sure what happened to John Cantlie.

***

Nothing is straightforward in a war as messy as the one in Syria. We know that LaFarge helped fund a group that committed war crimes and countless acts of unbelievable violence. And we know that it put its own workers in huge danger. 

But as this case unfolds we’re learning that there may have been more to it all than just opportunism and greed…

Today’s episode was written and produced by Ella Hill.