Western intelligence agencies used a cement plant in Syria at the center of a terror financing investigation in France to gather information on hostages held by the Islamic State, sources related to the operation said.
A Jordanian intelligence officer who was instrumental in the espionage effort confirmed to The Guardian that the Lafarge factory, which continued to operate after the terror group invaded eastern Syria, in one of the most controversial episodes of the war, was the regional center of a failed effort to rescue up to 30 hostages. Among those arrested were American journalist James Foley, British photographer John Cantlie and Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, two of whom were later confirmed dead.
France’s highest court ruled this week that Lafarge could still be investigated on allegations of complicity in crimes against humanity for his dealings in Syria, and said an earlier decision to remove the charge was wrong. The company is under formal investigation in France for efforts to maintain operations at the peak of the terror group’s violence in 2013-14.
Lafarge has been accused of paying up to 13 million euros (11.15 million pounds) in taxes and fees to the Islamic State to keep the factory, located in the heart of Islamic State territory, running. The company has not questioned the figure and acknowledged having paid fees to intermediaries, but said it does not know the final destination of the money.
The long-awaited ruling is seen as a judicial precedent and has broad implications for companies operating in war zones, but the role of the Jordanian intelligence officer could also raise questions about the influence of intelligence services on apparently made sensitive business decisions. by large companies. and in any undeclared role of the French government in keeping the plant running.
“This was a more important decision than Lafarge,” said a senior intelligence source. “The court case does not tell the full story.”
Former Chief Executive Officer Bruno Lafont, as well as former Chief Security Officer Jean-Claude Veillard, and a former director of the company’s Syrian subsidiary, Frédéric Jolibois, have denied charges of financing a terrorist organization and endangering the lives of others and They could face up to 10 years in jail and fines if convicted.
However, senior French officials have not faced public scrutiny and were not identified in a report subsequently ordered by a merged entity, LafargeHolcim, and prepared by the Baker McKenzie law firm.
The Guardian learned that during the peak of ISIS control in the region, Jordanian spy Ahmad al-Jaloudi regularly traveled between the plant and Amman to brief regional and global intelligence chiefs on the alleged whereabouts of the hostages, and at one point he tracked them down to an oil plant near the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa.
Jaloudi, whose job description was Lafarge’s senior risk manager, also traveled to Raqqa to deal with a high-ranking Islamic State leader and try to secure the release of the Jordanian pilot whose F-16 fighter plane crashed near Raqqa. . The pilot was later burned alive by the Islamic State, his death filmed and broadcast as propaganda, marking one of the most gruesome moments of the five-year insurgency.
Contacted by The Guardian this month, Jaloudi, a veteran official from Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate (GID) confirmed his role. “I was very proud of the work I did to try to secure the release of the hostages, the Jordanian pilot, and to protect the workers at the plant. I provided accurate actionable intelligence in real time that could have led to the detainees being rescued. “
For three years, Jaloudi made repeated trips from the Lafarge plant, between Raqqa and Aleppo, through the heart of the so-called caliphate to Turkey and then to Amman to report to officials every month or so. His role was known to spies in Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Jordan, all of whom helped facilitate their access to and from one of the most dangerous corners of the world, passing through Islamic State checkpoints and surviving scrutiny. relentless of his country. counterintelligence teams.
Intelligence sources have confirmed that Jaloubi did not play any role in the company’s business operations. His entry and exit from Syria was facilitated across the Turkish border, by Turkey’s national intelligence service, MIT, and his contact was the then head of the GID, General Faisal al-Shobaki. Sources have confirmed that Jaloudi was one of the most important agents led by any intelligence service within IS territory, providing periodic information on the movements, the leadership of the group and, in particular, the whereabouts of the hostages it was holding.
In early 2014, Jaloudi helped confirm that the hostages, including journalists and humanitarian workers, were being held at the al-Akirashi oil station on the outskirts of Raqqa.
The information was confirmed by delivery drivers and couriers to the plant. A second source inside the Islamic State had also told The Guardian that the oil factory was being used as a detention center. In April of that year, a rescue mission was launched, but the hostages had been transferred only a few days earlier.
Lafarge, a world leader in building materials, has more than 2,500 factories around the world. Its investment in Syria in 2007 was worth around 600 million euros at the time and it was considered an influential French corporate brand in the Middle East.
The company previously admitted, after its own internal investigation, that its Syrian subsidiary paid armed groups to help protect personnel at the plant. But he has rejected various charges against him as part of the French legal investigation, including that of being an accessory to crimes against humanity due to his dealings with militant groups in the area, which included the Islamic State.
The investigation, under which Lafarge is also being investigated for allegedly financing a terrorist organization, could lead to a trial, although no date has been set.
The plant, near Jalabiya, was finally seized by ISIS in late 2014. ISIS was toppled during a coalition air campaign and the plant was later occupied by US and French special forces teams as the battle escalated. to defeat the group.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism