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Quick Thoughts: Dorothée Myriam Kellou on French Cement Giant Lafarge's Operations in Syria

[A Lafarge-affiliated facility] [A Lafarge-affiliated facility]

[In June 2016, French journalist Dorothée Myriam Kellou published the results of her groundbreaking investigation of the French cement giant Lafarge’s operations in Syria, replete with payoffs to armed groups and indications of covert dealings with the Islamic State (IS) movement in order to facilitate the continuation of operations at the company’s plant in northern Syria. Her work was additionally featured on the France 24 television station. Jadaliyya interviewed Kellou to learn further details of how she came across this story and her main conclusions]

Jadaliyya (J): How did you come to the realisation there is a story to be reported?

Dorothée Myriam Kellou (DMK): Nidal Wahbi, former human resources manager for Lafarge Cement Syria (LCS), the Syrian subsidiary of the French multinational cement company Lafarge, was abducted in August 2012 in Manbij, a town 65 kilometers east of the LCS plant, where most of its employees were housed. He paid a ransom to his abductors to obtain his freedom, but never received compensation from Lafarge. After resorting to the Syrian justice system and the highest levels of Lafarge management first in Syria and then France, he was trying to get in contact with a French journalist hoping his story could be heard. Rochelle Davis, my former professor at Georgetown University, was in contact with Syrian refugees. They asked her for help in finding a French journalist proficient in Arabic. She knew I was working as a journalist in Paris and put me in contact with Wahbi.

I initially recorded his story in mid-2014 but it was a hard sell to the French media. Even though Wahbi’s kidnapping experience was traumatic and Lafarge's apparent negligence in his case added to the trauma, how could a story two years old with a rather happy ending be of any interest to the French media?

I therefore began to look for more testimonies from Syrian Lafarge employees, on the assumption that Wahbi’s case represented a broader problem concerning Lafarge’s management practices in Syria. I was able to contact several via Facebook pages condemning Lafarge management practices during the war. Many posts denounced the fact that employees were pressured to report for work despite the risks on the roads. They faced salary cuts, other measures and even termination if they refused to take risks. Working from a distance was not easy. I had to gain the employees' trust, and many of them initially feared talking to me. They were still in Syria at that time.

On 19 September 2014, the Islamic State movement (IS), which controlled most of the roads around the plant, took over the Lafarge site, and the French company announced the cessation of all activity. Officially, all Lafarge employees on site were evacuated safely. In fact, no evacuation was organized. Employees had to flee using their own resources through the desert. After this event, anger grew online on the Facebook pages I was monitoring and more employees became willing to talk.

At this point, new posts started to appear denouncing Lafarge for funding IS in Syria.

The Syrian news site Zaman al-Wasl, close to the opposition, published an article exposing Lafarge’s links to IS. The article was based on leaked emails from Lafarge management. Some time later I managed to gain access to the leaked emails and to documents, not all of which had been published by Zaman al-Wasl. They were very useful to cross check the many testimonies I had collected from Lafarge employees. I was now confident that my sources were sufficiently credible, and that I could continue investigating this story and publish it. 

The main question I decided to raise was the following: while most foreign companies decided to withdraw from Syria as early as 2012, how could the Lafarge cement plant continue functioning amidst armed conflict? What were the costs to its employees of Lafarge’s decision to do so, and what if any violations were committed with respect to the company's ethical code?

J: What were your main findings, and how were you able to confirm them?

DMK: The Jalabiya cement plant was acquired by Lafarge in 2007 when the French group purchased it, while it was still under construction, from the Egyptian company Orascom. Syrian businessman Firas Tlass, a brother of former defence minister Mustafa Tlass, who was then close to the regime but is today opposed to it, was a minority partner in Lafarge Cement Syria (LCS). The factory, which had a production capacity of 2.6 million tons of cement per year, began operating in 2010. It was inaugurated with great pomp and circumstance in the presence of the French ambassador to Syria, Eric Chevalier. Estimated at 600 million Euros, it was the most significant foreign investment in Syria outside of the oil sector. At this time, Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria was liberalizing the Syrian economy, and the cement sector, newly opened to competition, was expanding.

In 2012, when the conflict escalated in the north of the country around Raqqa and Aleppo, Lafarge Cement Syria repatriated its expatriate staff, while Syrian employees continued working at the Jalabiya plant.

LCS entered into arrangements with armed groups operating near the plant in order to maintain production and secure the roads for cement convoys and employee access to the plant from Kobane, via checkpoints controlled by the People's Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). At that time, the road from the plant to Manbij, where most Lafarge employees were housed, was controlled by factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

LCS relied on its local partner, Firas Tlass, to establish contacts with the leaders of different armed group in the area and create a system of monthly pay-offs to them. According to Jacob Waerness, former risk manager for LCS whom I contacted after the release of his book on his experience on Lafarge in Syria, twenty armed groups controlling areas around the plant were funded on a monthly basis in this way. The list could change depending on the armed group's cooperation with Lafarge or influence in the region.

According Waerness, when the Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State movement (then known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) gradually took control of towns and roads surrounding the plant, the jihadist organizations' names were added to Firas Tlass' list of armed groups that received funding on a monthly basis. Contacted by Le Monde, Tlass denied it.

Yet the investigation proved that Lafarge – at least indirectly – financed IS jihadists for a little over a year from spring 2013 until 19 September 2014, when IS took over the site and Lafarge halted all operations. The French group’s cement plant in Jalabiya was supplied by, and paid taxes to, IS in order to continue operating during the war. The leaked emails show that Lafarge's Paris headquarters was aware of these arrangements.

By way of substantiation, I gained access to IS documents permitting cement trucks from Lafarge to cross their checkpoints. At the beginning of May 2014, this took the form a simple handwritten note issued by IS and stamped by its finance department. In September 2014, a permit bearing the IS seal, and approved by the financial director of its Aleppo wilaya (province), bears witness to the agreements that were forged between LCS and IS to allow the free movement of materials to and from the Lafarge plant. IS imposed taxes on the transport of goods passing through its checkpoints. Revenues were managed by Bayt al-Mal, (the IS Finance Ministry), which manages revenues collected or distributed in different provinces controlled by the Islamic State movement. 

To make cement, Lafarge also needed access to raw materials such as limestone, clay and pozzolans. Lafarge bought pozzolans from a quarry located close to Raqqa. Even if the owner was not a member of the jihadist organization, he was most likely “taxed” by it, as were all businesses in the region.

Lafarge also had recourse to intermediaries and dealers who traded in oil refined by IS in exchange for the payment of license fees and taxes. Emails show that Ahmad Jamal, a war profiteer and native of Raqqa who had very close relationships with IS, ensured a steady supply of oil to LCS. Lafarge paid a high price for this, but it guaranteed them the security to pursue their operations.

Lafarge made its payments through a bank account in Lebanon in the name of Dr. Amro Taleb, a young, personable twenty eight-year-old Syrian-Canadian businessman. Taleb presented himself as a consultant on environmental management for the Syrian government and the Lafarge Syria branch, and as the owner of an import-export company based in Turkey near the Syrian border. These opaque dealings allowed Lafarge to continue operating its plant in Syria despite increasing instability in the region.

Not only did Lafarge maintain its production at the cost of disturbing arrangements with armed groups including IS, it did so at the expense of its employees' safety. According to the information gathered, the French company did not set up safety measures commensurate with the security situation in the area in which the plant was situated. Employees kept going to work in spite of the many dangerous checkpoints controlled by different armed groups, including IS, and many employees endured strong pressure from Lafarge management in Syria to keep the plant running. Those who refused to take such risks could see their salaries cut or even get fired. The available documents demonstrate that it was only their employer’s relationships with powerful armed groups that protected them.

Yet the risks on the roads were real. At least thirteen employees were kidnapped during the war, and Lafarge had to negotiate their freedom. Despite the acute risks to its employees, Lafarge continued to operate the plant until Islamic State took control of the production plant in September 2014. That day, employees present at the site fled by their own means, demonstrating Lafarge’s negligence with regard to safety procedures.

J: What has been the response of Lafarge and the relevant authorities to your reporting?

DMK: The story that a French company, Lafarge, the world leader in cement since its merger with the Swiss company Holcim, and a linchpin of the CAC 40, the French stock exchange, indirectly – as the investigation proved – financed Islamic State jihadists for a little over a year between spring 2013 and the end of summer 2014, was a very big scoop in France and internationally when it was published in France's pre-eminent daily newspaper Le Monde.

The findings of the first part of the investigation published in June 2016 disclosing the troubling arrangements between IS and Lafarge were taken up by many newspapers, radio broadcasts and TV stations. Sadly enough, even Donald Trump's campaign staff used the report citing a donation by cement giant Lafarge to the Clinton Foundation, and said that Hillary Clinton “accepted money from a company linked to IS”.

After the release of the first part of the investigation, LafargeHolcim said that it had started an internal review into the reported allegations under the auspices of its Finance & Audit Committee. LafargeHolcim also put forward a humanitarian argument, stating:  “With a capacity of three million tonnes, the plant supplied approximately one third of the market, serving a fundamental need of the local people and contributing to the economic development of Syria. Once the conflict reached the area of the plant, the first priority for Lafarge was the safety and security of its employees, while planning for the eventual closure of the plant”. 

The French authorities made no comment. In July 2016, a French parliamentary report concluded that lawmakers had no evidence that Lafarge or its local entities contributed – directly or indirectly – to the financing of IS. The next day, the leading right-wing daily newspaper Le Figaro ran the headline “Lafarge cleared by a parliamentary report”.

At the civil society level, the NGO Sumofus organized a petition calling for an end to the partnership between Lafarge and the Paris town hall for the man-made Paris-Plages beaches along the Seine River made with sand delivered by LafargeHolcim.

After the first part of the investigation was published Jacob Waerness, former risk manager for Lafarge Cement Syria, contacted me. He had just finished writing a book in his native Norwegian about his experiences working in Syria during the war.

After meeting him in Oslo, I was able to further document Lafarge's indirect funding of IS. The two other parts of the investigation on Lafarge deal with IS and Lafarge management's exposure of Syrian employees to serious risks during the war. They were published in November 2016 in Le Monde and on the website of France 24, the international television news channel based in Paris.

After the release of two new articles further documenting the price Lafarge was prepared to pay to maintain its production at its plant during the war, the French NGO Sherpa and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), as well as eleven complainants who are former Syrian employees, filed suit against Lafarge and its Syrian subsidiary LCS on account their actions in Syria. As they stated in a press statement: “By having business relations with the terrorist group IS in Syria, this company may have taken part in the financing of the group, therefore becoming complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity”. They also filed a suit against the cement-manufacturer and its subsidiary for “reckless endangerment”.

To this day, Lafargeholcim asserts that the company forbade all deals with listed terrorist organizations, and has stated that it is seeking to verify the authenticity of documents such as the IS permits.

J: Do you think this is an isolated case or part of a broader phenomenon?

DMK: It certainly is not an isolated case. A recent investigation by Le Monde has shown that the extraction of talc in Afghanistan is a very profitable business for the Taliban. The Italian-Pakistani joint venture IMI Omar Private paid about USD 22 million per year to the Taliban for permission to cross checkpoints controlled by the insurgents and export talc to Pakistan, from where it is exported to the rest of the world. There are many other undocumented cases of indirect funding of armed groups and human rights abusers in conflict areas.

How can authorities regulate the actions of multinationals that operate through foreign subsidiaries and their subcontractors when they are breaching fundamental rights? Documenting such cases helps fuel debates that have been launched in a few European countries by campaigners aiming to improve corporate accountability through legislation requiring companies to conduct mandatory human rights due diligence throughout their global operations.

The complaint against LafargeHolcim for financing terrorist activity, and complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity is the first of its kind. It could be an opportunity to clarify the conditions under which a company can be held accountable for aiding crimes. 


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