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As cement giant LafargeHolcim faces a criminal investigation for allegedly channeling millions of dollars to the Islamic State and other groups in Syria, police question Paul Desmarais Jr., whose.

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He said it was up to managers to run the business, not directors. He talked about how the company investigated the allegations, made changes to procedures and pushed out those involved.

Desmarais, 63, declined to respond to questions from The Globe about the police interview or the allegations. In a statement, he said directors learned about the allegations through media reports in and immediately conducted an internal investigation. The police investigation is far from over, and other directors have been questioned as well. But the Lafarge case has already rippled through corporate board rooms around the world and set off alarm bells for companies operating in troubled regions.

The probe has been relentless, with officers in France and Belgium raiding company offices, seizing thousands of documents and tapping personal telephones. So far, a panel of French judges has put eight former and current Lafarge executives, including two former CEOs, under formal investigation for terrorist financing and crimes against humanity, a first step toward criminal charges. If convicted, they could face up to 10 years in prison.

The judges have also summoned lawyers for Lafarge to a hearing on June 28 in Paris, and it has been widely reported in France that the company is expected to be put under formal investigation on the same changes, as well as war crimes. Only a handful of companies have ever been charged with terrorist financing, and most of those cases involved smaller businesses, far less cash and terrorist groups that do not compare to IS. For example, one of the biggest cases concerned a subsidiary of Chiquita Brands International Inc.

The Lafarge case also marks the first time anti-terrorism laws have been used to target a Western company for its alleged involvement in helping a group such as IS commit war crimes.

The Globe has reviewed hundreds of documents filed with the French judges, and the filings reveal the incredible lengths Lafarge went to in order to keep operating in Syria even as the civil war escalated and other companies pulled out. That included not only paying IS and other rebels, but also ending up in a business partnership with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Company gained instant fame by winning the contract to build the Suez Canal in Number of employees in more than 80 countries including Canada. It was also one of the few Western companies operating in North Korea until last year when it sold its interest in a plant there. Head office moved from Paris to Zurich. Lafarge is no ordinary company. Desmarais, whose well-connected family holds interests in blue-chip companies such as Canadian insurer Great-West Lifeco Inc.

The family has been investing abroad for decades through Groupe Bruxelles Lambert, a partnership created in by Mr. GBL began investing in Lafarge in and within two years acquired a per-cent stake. That made it the largest single shareholder, and the firm received three seats on the company board: Desmarais proved to be an active board member. Lafont would travel to Canada for a day of golf with Mr. When the company was struggling to seal the merger with Holcim, documents show Mr.

Orascom was controlled by Nassef Sawiris, one of the wealthiest men in Egypt, and under the terms of the transaction Mr. Sawiris received an Sawiris had been eager to invest in Syria for a while, seeing it as a vast untapped market with a growing economy and no significant private players in the cement business.

It would be the biggest cement operation in Syria, producing three million tonnes a year and employing people at the plant and another 90 at a generating station. To get the plant built, Mr. Sawiris needed a local partner who could navigate the Syrian bureaucracy and win the backing of Mr.

There was no one better than Firas Tlass. Tlass agreed to become a partner in the Jalabiya project — at a price. He demanded a 1. Sawiris accepted, and construction began around the time Lafarge bought Orascom. After the takeover, Mr. He developed a particular connection with Mr. The two served on the advisory board of the Council of Foreign Relations in New York and met for dinner frequently in Paris and Switzerland.

Sawiris and his family for a visit to Canada one summer. In late January, , Mr. Lafont on a tour of the Jalabiya plant, which was nearing completion. They flew on Mr. After a brief visit, the group headed to Damascus for a meeting with Mr. The President thanked them for investing in the country and spoke about his plans for a new railway to the Suez Canal in Egypt.

Later, during a dinner with government officials and local businessmen, Mr. Desmarais was introduced to Mr. Tlass and his brother. Tlass and never saw him again. Cement mixer trucks are shown in this photo. The Syrian plant opened a few months later amid great fanfare. Lafont was on hand along with Mr. Everything seemed set, and Mr. Pescheux planned to have the plant running at full production by the end of the year.

By early , the movement had swept across North Africa, toppling regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and heading for Syria, where protests started in March. The Assad government responded with a brutal crackdown, and within months armed opposition began taking root. With civil war looming, most Western companies began leaving the country or selling their operations. Lafarge decided to stay put. Besides, the plant seemed to be outside the conflict zones, and the EU sanctions did not include cement.

The instructions to Mr. The situation soon began to change. In early , the civil war escalated. Kurdish militia forces defeated the Syrian army in nearby Aleppo, while another rebel group, the Free Syrian Army, took control of Manbij, a small city close to the plant where many Lafarge workers lived. By June the conflict was bad enough that Mr. Pescheux relocated from Damascus to Egypt and evacuated about foreign staff from the plant. But he was still under instructions to keep the Syrian operation producing as much cement as possible with the remaining workers, who were mostly Syrian and Chinese.

That was becoming ever more difficult. But with the northern territory now in the hands of anti-Assad forces, those supply lines had been cut.

Pescheux had to deal with local rebels who controlled almost all the sources of fuel, pozzolan and other supplies. He had hired a security expert, a former intelligence officer from Norway named Jacob Waerness, who had moved into the plant in and began making contact with the Kurds and other groups. Now they want cement, they want power from us to feed their asphalt plant, they are coming back on the topic of taxes.

The chaos continued to mount. Rebel groups began setting up checkpoints on almost every road, demanding bribes and harassing Lafarge workers.

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