Lafarge SA, a giant French cement company, was hit with a $778 million fine on Tuesday for paying the Islamic State and other jihadist organizations millions of dollars to expand their operations in Syria.
When the radical Islamists occupied a big portion of Syria and Iraq in 2013–2014, the corporation and its Syrian subsidiary allegedly actively sought the IS group’s assistance to drive out rivals, establishing an actual “income sharing agreement” with them.
With a Lafarge executive stating that the partnership was “to share the cake,” it also gave access and protection money to supporters of IS and the similarly extremist Al-Nusrah Front, ultimately generating almost $70 million in revenue during the time.
Lafarge, the first corporation to be charged with this crime, consented to the fine and entered a guilty plea to one count of conspiring to provide material support to US-designated foreign terrorist groups.
US government say that Lafarge, which is now owned by the enormous Swiss company Holcim Group, turned into a profit-making handmaiden of terrorism.
“In the midst of a civil war, Lafarge made the unthinkable choice to put money into the hands of ISIS, one of the world’s most barbaric terrorist organizations, so that it could continue selling cement,” US prosecutor Breon Peace said, using another acronym for IS.
“This unprecedented charge and resolution reflect the extraordinary crimes committed and demonstrates that corporations that take actions in contravention of our national security interests in violation of the law will be held to account,” Peace said.
In a statement, Lafarge said the company and its defunct subsidiary Lafarge Cement Syria “have accepted responsibility for the actions of the individual executives involved.”
“We deeply regret that this conduct occurred and have worked with the US Department of Justice to resolve this matter.”
Holcim, which took over Lafarge in 2015 without knowledge of the Syria business dealings, said it had been cleared of any wrongdoing by US authorities.
“None of the conduct involved Holcim, which has never operated in Syria, or any Lafarge operations or employees in the United States,” it said.
Holcim shares traded in Switzerland were suspended temporarily when the announcement was made but ended the day up 2.8 percent at 42.82 Swiss francs ($43.07).
Lafarge began operating a 680-million-euro ($670 million) cement plant in northern Syria in 2010, the year IS swept the region with a brutal campaign to establish its extremist “caliphate.”
That sparked a counter-offensive by the Iraq military and Syrian Kurdish forces backed by the US-led international coalition in the region.
The US designated IS and Al-Nusrah terror organizations, threatening tough penalties against anyone working with them.
Rather than withdraw like other companies, Lafarge kept working to market its cement, the Justice Department said.
From 2013 to 2104, it paid IS and Al-Nusrah around $5.9 million, some for raw materials, some as payments based on the volume of cement sold and some simply as monthly “donations.”
Lafarge paid another $1.1 million to intermediaries between the two groups.
It also worked out a deal with IS to make it harder for cheaper Turkish cement suppliers to sell their goods in the same area, allowing Lafarge to keep its prices higher.
Company executives knew of the arrangement, the Justice Department said.
In 2014, a senior supervisory official who reported directly to Lafarge’s chief executive wrote to officials in the Syria subsidiary about negotiations with IS.
“We have to maintain the principle that we are ready to share the ‘cake,’ if there is a ‘cake,’” he wrote, defining cake as “profit.”
Lafarge “negotiated and made unlawful payments at a time when these groups were gaining territory and brutalizing innocent civilians in Syria and elsewhere and were actively plotting against Americans,” said US Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen.
Lafarge is still under investigation in France for culpability in crimes against humanity.
A French appeals court accepted the indictment in May, paving the way for the business and eight executives—including former CEO Bruno Lafont—to go on trial.
Lafarge is still defending itself in that lawsuit, but now there is a chance that US prosecutors’ evidence could be used.
It does not have the option of settlement negotiation, which is prohibited by French anti-terrorism laws, unlike in the United States.