In a story authored by Sam Jones, Paul Murphy, and Helen Warrell, the Financial Times published not so long ago a suspect in one of Germany’s biggest financial frauds, Jan Marsalek, who talked of assembling a Libyan militia and bragged of adventures with Russian troops.
The Times said it was early 2018 when Jan Marsalek, the young chief operating officer of German fintech champion Wirecard, held a meeting in his palatial home in Munich to talk about a new special project he was interested in: recruiting 15,000 Libyan militiamen.
But Marsalek suddenly vanished in the wake of Wirecard’s implosion. An international warrant has been issued for his arrest. German prosecutors regard him as one of the key suspects in a vast fraud that for years inflated the payment company’s balance sheet and profits and helped propel it into the prestigious Dax 30 index.
But as documents and testimony from first-hand witnesses reveal, Mr Marsalek’s interests went far beyond unorthodox accounting. The 40-year-old Austrian has led multiple lives, with complicated and overlapping commercial and political interests. Sometimes those interests cleaved to Wirecard’s aggressive expansion plans in frontier markets. Sometimes they coincided with Mr Marsalek’s own sprawling and unusual range of personal investments. And sometimes they seemed to fit neatly with the work of Russia’s intelligence agencies. Mr Marsalek is now a person of interest to three western intelligence agencies, according to officials in three countries.
In particular, they are intrigued by Mr Marsalek’s association with individuals or networks linked to Russia’s military intelligence directorate, the GRU — the agency blamed for the attempted assassination of ex-spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, the covert war in Ukraine, and the manipulation of the 2016 presidential election in the US. He has an extreme affinity for security . . . I could never tell whether it was real or staged.
Since 2015, Libya has been a focus of Mr Marsalek’s world beyond Wirecard. His activities there — fragments of which have been pieced together by the Financial Times — are a window into his alternative work: secretive projects that took him across the Middle East, often into conflict zones.
For the past decade, Libya’s bloody civil war has kept all but the most adventurous western investors and boldest politicians away. But it has become the locus for a hidden war of interests — both commercial and diplomatic. And a playground for spies.
Over the past six months, the FT has spoken to half a dozen individuals who worked directly with Mr Marsalek on projects in the north African country, and gained access to documents and emails concerning his affairs far outside the scope of his job at the helm of a major German multinational. Most of those people spoke on condition of anonymity because they are fearful for their livelihoods and their personal safety.
“In general, Marsalek is a very strange character: he has an extreme affinity for security and is very mysterious,” said one of those who worked with him. “I could never tell whether it was real or staged.” Another recalls a lunch in June 2017, at the Käfer-Schänke in Munich, a luxury restaurant that was a favourite haunt of Mr Marsalek’s.
Across a table of starched linen and pristine crystal glasses, Mr Marsalek boasted to his two dining companions of a trip he had made — to the desert ruins of Palmyra, in Syria, as a guest of the Russian military. He was there with “the boys” right after they retook it from Isis, he said, and it had been a fantastic experience. Russia’s defence ministry did not respond to a request for comment. What has been hard to understand, one intelligence official stressed, is the degree to which Mr Marsalek was aware of who he was becoming entangled with, or whether his often maladroit actions were instead driven by a deluded sense of adventurism. The FT put a list of questions concerning Mr Marsalek’s activities to his lawyer in Germany, who declined to comment.
A palatial home next to the Russian consulate Prinzregentenstrasse 61 was described by Mr Marsalek as his home. But the huge urban villa — which stands opposite the Russian consular compound in Munich — was as austere inside as it was embellished outside. Guests would be welcomed by a female assistant and shown to the spotless salon. Polished floors and brilliant white walls, spartanly, if strikingly, adorned with modern works of art, gave the place an eerie formality, recall visitors — somewhere between an Apple store and an extremely expensive lawyers’ practice.
It was an aesthetic Mr Marsalek cultivated in his dress, too, in what one source described as an unvarying “uniform” of a neatly tailored suit and a brilliant white, crisp shirt, open at the collar. The official purpose of the meeting at Prinzregentenstrasse 61 in February 2018, was to discuss humanitarian reconstruction in Libya. Months earlier, through contacts he had made at the Austrian-Russian Friendship Society — an organisation backed by the Russian government to promote networking between senior policymakers in the two countries — Mr Marsalek had recruited a small group of Austrian security and international development experts for such a project. Muslimedia.PH