New questions are being raised about the French government’s knowledge and possible involvement in a deal brokered between the French cement company and ISIS.
Last week, the French people, who have suffered more casualties from ISIS terrorist attacks on European soil than any other nationality, learned of unsettling news.
Their government was aware — and likely encouraged — French cement company Lafarge to negotiate with the terrorist group in order to continue its operations in ISIS controlled Syria, between September 2012 and May 2014.
The revelation was made after the French newspaper Liberation obtained a document from the General Directorate of External Security (DGSE) in mid-July, showing the government was “well aware of the conditions under which Lafarge maintained its activity in Syria in territory partly occupied by the Islamic State.”
The nuts and bolts of the deal was this: ISIS allowed Lafarge to continue its operations in northern Syria’s Jalabiya in exchange for payments totaling US$15.3 million. However, despite paying the terrorist organization a sum total of US$5.6 million between 2012 and 2014, nine employees were taken hostage in October 2012, forcing the company to pay an additional 200,000 Euros (US$235,500) in ransom fees.
While Lafarge is currently facing a series of legal cases, from financing a terrorist organization to violating the trade embargo – questions are now being asked of the French government.
Specifically, what did the Francois Hollande administration know and when, and did officials play a supporting role in brokering the deal?
It is important to remember that the French government defined the factory as “France’s most important investment” in Syria, opposed its closure, and urged the United States not to bomb it after the factory fell into ISIS’ hands.
“The French investment should be protected,” wrote France’s Syria envoy, Franck Gellet, in an email to senior foreign ministry officials in a 2014 email.
On July 15, one of France’s highest courts – the Court of Cassation — announced it had postponed its decision on whether to uphold or drop charges against Lafarge and two of its former high-ranking executives who have been charged with “financing a terrorist organization,” “violating an embargo,” and “endangering the lives of employees.”
Human rights groups, along with 11 former employees of the company have opposed any removal of the charges, accusing Lafarge of “complicity in crimes against humanity.”
They pointed to the fact that the terrorist group is responsible for the deaths of more than 18,000 civilians in Iraq alone, along with dozens of terrorist attacks around the world. “The violence suffered by civilians in Iraq remains staggering,” said a 2018 report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The report accused ISIS of committing “systematic and widespread violence and abuses of international human rights law and humanitarian law,” along with “crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide.”
This sordid episode not only raises questions about the French government’s knowledge and involvement in the Lafarge-ISIS partnership, but also its broader support for violent and destabilizing forces in the Middle East and North Africa.
For example, its military involvement in Libya has been brought to question, as it has provided arms and air support to the warlord General Khalifa Haftar, in particular, and the violent and despotic militias under his control.
These Haftar militias have been grouped under a single banner – the Libyan National Army (LNA) – and have been described as the “most violent” on the African continent.
The LNA has been accused of committing “unimaginable horrors,” including booby-trapping buildings, mass executions, mass rapes, mass torture, aerial bombardment of residential buildings, and forced disappearances in the territory it holds.
The LNA are “using the method of ethnic cleansing to pursue their agenda and prevent the Libyan people from achieving democracy,” Ghaith al Sanusi, an activist from the Libyan city Derna, told this author in 2019.
In other words, the LNA, with the help of the French government, has been targeting and killing Libyans who revolted against the dictator Muammar Gaddafi and then later ISIS.
Moreover, in providing arms and military assistance to the LNA, France has violated the United Nations imposed arms embargo on Libya, making it complicit in war criminality and in the LNA’s crimes against humanity.
This, of course, brings us full circle to Lafarge.
The inference is obvious and hardly needs stating. If the French government is willing to brazenly defy the UN in funneling cash, weapons, and military assistance to a bona fide terrorist group in Libya, then there’s no reason to believe it wasn’t a willing participant in the facilitation and negotiation between a French company and ISIS to preserve and protect what it regards as its “most important investment in Syria.”
All eyes will now be on the country’s Court of Cassation, which has rescheduled its appeal hearings on Lafarge to September 7. Chief among observers will be those pertaining to the human rights groups that have objected to charges being dropped against the company, including the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and Sherpa.
The outcome of this hearing promises to be another litmus test for the country’s commitment to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
CJ Werleman is a journalist, published author, political commentator, analyst on conflict and terrorism, and activist who has dedicated his career to exposing discrimination and injustices against Muslim communities around the world.