French cement maker Lafarge has pleaded guilty to a US charge that it made payments to groups designated as “terrorists” by the United States – including ISIL (ISIS) – in order to protect its plant in Syria, according to a court hearing.
The admission on Tuesday in a Brooklyn federal court marked the first time a company has pleaded guilty in the US to charges of providing “material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization”.
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US prosecutors said Lafarge paid ISIL and al-Nusra Front, through intermediaries, the equivalent of approximately $5.92m in order to guarantee the protection of its plant in Jalabiya, which it had kept running after war broke out in Syria in 2011. It made the payment to the two armed groups from August 2013 through October 2014.
Lafarge agreed to forfeit $687m and pay a fine of $90m in its guilty plea.
Lafarge eventually evacuated the cement plant in September 2014, US prosecutors said. At that point, ISIL took possession of the remaining cement and sold it for the equivalent of $3.21m, prosecutors said.
Lafarge, which became part of Swiss-listed Holcim in 2015, is also facing charges of complicity in crimes against humanity in Paris for keeping a factory running in Syria during the conflict.
The cement maker previously admitted after an internal investigation that its Syrian subsidiary paid armed groups to help protect staff at the plant. But it had denied charges that it was complicit in crimes against humanity.
Lafarge Chair Magali Anderson said in court that from August 2013 until November 2014 former company executives “knowingly and willfully agreed to participate in a conspiracy to make and authorise payments intended for the benefit of various armed groups in Syria”.
“The individuals responsible for this conduct have been separated from the company since at least 2017,” she said.
“The terrorism crimes to which Lafarge and its subsidiary have pleaded guilty are a vivid reminder of how corporate crime can intersect with national security,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa O Monaco. “The defendants partnered with ISIS, one of the most brutal terrorist organisations the world has ever known, to enhance profits and increase market share – all while ISIS engaged in a notorious campaign of violence during the Syrian civil war.”
In a statement, Holcim noted that none of the conduct involved Holcim, “which has never operated in Syria, or any Lafarge operations or employees in the United States, and it is in stark contrast with everything that Holcim stands for”.
Holcim said former Lafarge executives involved in the conduct concealed it from Holcim, and from external auditors.
In 2017, rights group Sherpa and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights accused Lafarge in a French lawsuit of paying 13 million euros ($12.79m) to armed groups, including ISIL fighters, to keep operating in Syria between 2011 and 2015.
The SIX Swiss Exchange suspended trading in Holcim shares before the news.