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Wirecard thriller: Does Marsalek have links to Russian intelligence?

picture alliance via getty images

A high-ranking manager leads a double life as a Russian agent with everything that goes with it: from extravagant parties to a trip to the war zone with the private jet. Suddenly, almost two billion euros disappear, an international arrest warrant follows and the agent flees across different continents – until the Russian secret service finally evacuates him to Moscow.

It’s a story no Hollywood thriller could have imagined better. But it probably happened that way. The scandal surrounding the bankruptcy of German fintech hope Wirecard and the probably responsible manager Jan Marsalek continues to spread.

Just last Wednesday, Markus Braun and two other ex-board members were arrested for alleged commercial fraud of EUR 3.2 billion. Meanwhile, Marsalek, ex-Asia board member and number two in the group, is still on the run. It is still unclear where he is, but there are some indications.

But one thing at a time: In 2000, the Austrian Marsalek began his career with the German payment service provider Wirecard. In 2010 he was promoted to Chief Operating Officer and board member of the company. He is responsible for the Asian business. It’s the company’s golden years: business is growing globally, the share price has quintupled between 2017 and 2018.

Those who fly high fall low

The company moves up to the Dax in 2018 and the following year the Japanese major investor Softbank participates. It always seems to be going uphill for the German Paypal competition. But those who fly high fall low: In June 2020, the group has to admit that there is a huge gap in the balance sheets and 1.9 billion euros are missing.

It quickly turns out that Marsalek is probably one of the main responsible. His reaction confirms the suspicion that he is fleeing. The “Handelsblatt” also has the manager’s private chat history. Hours before he is fired, he sends a friend a text message: “Prepare for bad news. And really bad news ”.

When the DAX group filed for bankruptcy and Marsalek was sought by the authorities with an international arrest warrant, he had long been traveling with his private jet – at first probably to the Philippines. At least that’s what the chat messages show. There he allegedly wants to personally find the missing two billion. After that, it was said that he flew on to China.

“Or am I from there to Russia? ? “

But days later it turns out that the escape route was a wrong track. Marsalek was neither in the Philippines nor did he travel to China. Immigration officials have forged the documents, as the Philippine Minister of Justice announced. + At this point at the latest, it is clear that Marsalek has powerful allies.

In private chats, he makes fun of the unsuccessful search. “Apparently I have a Filipino wife. I thought I was in China? Or am I from there to Russia? ? “When asked whether the political system was stable at his place of residence, the Austrian replied:“ Yes, the same people are still at the helm as 25 years ago. ”

This applies to only a few countries in the world. Belarus is one of them. The last real dictator in Europe, Aljaksandr Lukashenka, has ruled there for a quarter of a century.

Natalia Fedosenko via getty images

Marsalek may have fled to Minsk via Klagenfurt and Tallin

The award-winning investigative network “Bellingcat” has reviewed passenger lists and analyzed flight routes and came to the conclusion that Marsalek could have fled from Klagenfurt via Tallinn to the Belarusian capital Minsk on the day of his immediate release.

In fact, there is an entry in the Russian entry and exit register, which also includes neighboring Belarus, according to which Marsalek entered Belarus on June 19. Since then, no exit has been recorded. But since the Russian foreign intelligence agency FSB has full control over the Russian border guards (and thus entry from Belarus), there was soon speculation that Marsalek might have been smuggled to Russia.

The “Handelsblatt” further learned from “Entrepreneurs, judiciary and diplomatic circles” that Marsalek should be located “west of Moscow under the supervision of the Russian military secret service GRU”. Before that, he had transferred a “substantial sum” from Dubai to Russia in the form of bitcoins. A Kremlin spokesman denied the reports in the Handelsblatt.

Marsalek used six passports – and a mysterious diplomatic passport

But there are some arguments in favor of this theory. The possible escape route to Minsk is only the tip of the iceberg, which “Bellingcat” now seems to uncover. You have Marsalek’s Russian immigration file, it has almost 600 pages. This is far more than that of any other individual that “Bellingcat” has ever evaluated. For the past ten years, Marsalek has flown to Russia on average every two months.

In 2016 there were even 16 stays in Russia, but these rarely lasted longer than 24 hours. The journalists from “Bellingcat” reconstructed one of his trips: “On September 29, 2016, Marsalek flew from Munich to Moscow at 1.55 am, only to fly to Athens at 7.58 am the same morning. The next day he flew from Greece to St. Petersburg, where he stayed only five and a half hours before flying back to Greece – this time to the holiday island of Santorini. “

For his countless trips, he used six different Austrian passports with different photos: sometimes with a full beard and bald head, sometimes with a hedgehog hairstyle and square glasses. Even more explosive is that he also uses the diplomatic passport with the number DA0000051 – issued by an unknown country.

Marsalek has established a close network with Russian officials

It is difficult to justify all of these trips to Russia with his business activities as head of Wirecard’s Asian business. In fact, there is growing evidence that Marsalek may have had close ties to Russia for years.

Through the Russian-Austrian Friendship Society, he is said to have established contacts with high-ranking Russian officials over the years. Much has been reported in Austria about these interdependencies

As the Austrian daily newspaper “Die Presse” reports, he is said to have also obtained secret documents from the Austrian Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution through his contacts. He is said to have passed these on to the right-wing populist Freedom Party Austria (FPÖ) – which in turn has had strikingly close links to the Putin state for years.

Marsalek had secret documents that were previously allegedly captured by the Russian secret service

But these were not the only secret documents Marsalek had. In 2018, he showed up at Wirecard’s London office to present classified reports from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which included a detailed analysis of the failed assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal, an ex-agent of the Russian military intelligence service GRU, who later overflowed to MI6.

Skripal was poisoned with an internationally outlawed neurotoxin in Salisbury, England, in March 2018. The attack led to a diplomatic crisis between the United Kingdom and Russia. According to Theresa May, the latter country is “very likely” responsible for the attack.

British authorities are investigating the location of the poisoning attack in Salisbury.

British authorities are investigating the location of the poisoning attack in Salisbury.

Christopher Furlong via getty images

Where Marsalek received these documents from is still unclear. It is very unlikely that they come from the OPCW itself. However, just a few months before the London trip in question, a hacking attack on the OPCW, presumably orchestrated by the GRU, was uncovered by the Dutch secret service. The documents in question may have been captured during this hacker attack.

Marsalek was “with the boys” in Syria

Marsalek’s city villa at Prinzregentenstrasse 61 in Munich may have happened to be directly opposite the Russian consulate, but the US newspaper “Fincial Times” (FT) found that there were also meetings with the Russian Andrey Chuprygin, whom Marsalek only called “Colonel” should have called.

Chuprygin now teaches Arabic studies at a Moscow university, but looks back on a long career in the Russian army – especially in the Middle East. According to Western intelligence agencies, he is most likely a senior officer in the Russian military intelligence GRU, as the FT writes.

The Russian confirmed to the “Financial Times” the contact with Marsalek. He has gathered his expertise on the security situation in Libya. In general, Marsalek was strikingly interested in the country torn by the civil war, in which Russia is also involved.

Marsalek repeatedly travels to various countries in the Middle East. During a lunch in July 2017, according to research by the “FT”, he bragged “with the boys” to friends from his last trip to the Syrian city of Palmyra. The meeting took place immediately after the liberation of the desert city from the Islamic State by Russian military personnel.

The Syrian desert city of Palmyra, photographed from a Russian attack helicopter.

The Syrian desert city of Palmyra, photographed from a Russian attack helicopter.

AFP Contributor via getty images

Russian mercenaries are deeply involved in the Libyan civil war

As in Ukraine and in large parts of Syria, there are no official Russian troops operating in Libya. But mercenaries and private soldiers paid by Russia have supported the conflict party over Khalifa Haftar for years. It was only in May that the news service Reuters revealed that 1,200 Russian private soldiers from the Wagner Group were serving the warlord.

However, Marsalek’s commitment to Libya was purely about economic interests. The Financial Times has also received emails showing that Marsalek used his contacts with high-ranking Austrian government officials and offered a former diplomat 200,000 euros. For this, the latter should prepare a report for him, which should discuss how destroyed Libyan cities could be rebuilt.

Through contacts in the Russian-Austrian Society, he secured additional funding of 120,000 euros, which came from Austrian government ministries, including the Ministry of Defense. “However, Mr. Marsalek’s actual interests were very different from the supposed economic development,” one person who worked on the Libyan reconstruction project told FT.

“We were there to give things a humanitarian touch”

“I don’t know what its [Herrn Marsaleks] were real plans, but we should be a fig leaf for what he did, ”said another involved person. “We were there to give things a humanitarian touch”.

In February 2018, the project participants met in Marsalek’s villa. The minutes of the meeting could also be viewed by the Financial Times. There it says: “The priority for Marsalek is the ‘closure of the border’, preferably by a ‘15,000-strong border police’, which should be recruited from former militias.”

He repeated this plan over and over again throughout the conversation, the minutes said. From a geostrategic point of view, Russia would do much to control the migratory flows that flow through Libya to Europe and could be used as a leverage against the West. The protocol says: “The closure of the border can be sold to the EU as a ‘solution to the migration crisis’ …”.

Marsalek has alleged economic interests in Libya

The city of Sirte in Libya, completely destroyed by the war.

The city of Sirte in Libya, completely destroyed by the war.

PHILIPPE DESMAZES via getty images

From Marsalek’s point of view, a peaceful turn of the Libyan civil war and a control of the associated migratory flows would be interesting not only because of its supposed ideological proximity to the FPÖ and its anti-immigration policy. The Financial Times has found five independent sources that confirm Marsalek is a co-owner of the Libyan Cement Company (LCC).

The LCC produces 90 percent of the cement on site – and this should be urgently needed to rebuild the almost completely destroyed country. In Libya, Russian geopolitical interests and Marsalek’s private interests appear to be closely linked.

Many questions regarding the relationship between Marsalek and Russia remain unanswered. But there are many indications that Marsalek actually lived a double life and that he was COO of Wirecard was only his official role.

“We can now also afford the private jet ?”

It also fits the picture that others draw of him. One of his former employees reports: “In general, Marsalek is a very strange character: he has an extreme security orientation and is very mysterious. I could never tell what was real and what was staged. “

This also fits with Marsalek’s self-image, who claims in his private chats, which are available to the “Handelsblatt”, “to have several passports, like any good secret agent.” Beach invited. Although I would rather wait a few months now until the vortex has subsided. We can now also afford the private jet? ”.

However, it can be doubted whether the whirlwind around Jan Marsalek will actually settle as quickly as he wishes. The agent thriller starring Marsalek just seems to have just started.

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