• EXCLUSIVE: Jan Marsalek, the ex-COO of collapsed German financial services Wirecard, likely fled to Russia, not Belarus or the Philippines, intelligence sources tell Insider.
  • “It appears that Mr. Marsalek has close ties to Russian government officials and possibly organized crime that were not obvious before but have become more clear as his past travels are investigated,” one Italian official told Insider.
  • The Russians are currently not cooperating with a Europol request to find Marsalek.
  • Marsalek entered Russia over 60 times in the past decade on six Austrian passports and three “diplomatic” passports issued by another, unidentified country, sources tell Insider.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Jan Marsalek, formerly the chief operating officer of collapsed German financial services Wirecard, likely fled to Russia last month as regulators and law enforcement officials tried to question him about a $2 billion hole in the firm’s accounting books, according to two European law enforcement officials.

Foreign intelligence sources also tell Insider that they suspect Marsalek escaped “with the clear help of Russian intelligence.”

“What has all of us concerned, not just law enforcement but intelligence and counterintelligence operations as well, is that it appears that Mr. Marsalek has close ties to Russian government officials and possibly organized crime that were not obvious before but have become more clear as his past travels are investigated,” one Italian official told Insider.

Marsalek disappeared shortly after being fired by Wirecard on June 18 as the extent of the firm’s financial problems became clear to auditors. After telling colleagues he would fly to the Philippines to find the missing money, Marsalek apparently arranged fraudulent paperwork showing his arrival in Manila via an international flight but local authorities quickly determined that he had not entered the country.

The open-source investigations website Bellingcat, along with German and Russian media partners, then determined that an Austrian citizen traveling under the name Jan Marsalek entered Belarus in the early hours of June 19 via a private jet. Belarus, which shares a border and close immigration cooperation with Russia, has no record of Marsalek leaving the country.

“One of the databases listed all planes – commercial and private/chartered – that arrived to Minsk Airport in the month of June,” reported Bellingcat. “On the 18 June 2020, only one private jet had landed: at 19:10 hrs local time. This jet – with its identity blocked at the request of the operator – had arrived from Estonia’s capital Tallinn. Two hours after it landed in Minsk – and, it can be assumed, cleared immigration and customs – the mysterious jet flew on to the Belarus town of Vytebsk.”

Two European law enforcement officials contacted by Insider said the evidence strongly points to Marsalek having fled to Russia via Belarus.

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“The latest update that has been circulated inside Europol says he is believed to have fled to Russia via Belarus on a private plane between June 18 and June 20,” said an Italian law enforcement official specializing in organized and financial crimes.

“Wirecard has operations and connections throughout all of the European Union, the Austrians might have the major jurisdiction but the ongoing investigations will have an effect on cases and potential prosecutions throughout the EU, so we are concerned and investigating as are many of our colleagues,” said the official, who does not have formal permission to discuss the matter with the media. (Wirecard had multiple managers who were Austrian.)

The Italian source added that Europol requests for cooperation from the Russian government in finding Marsalek have been so far ignored.

Bellingcat and its partners said they had obtained Marsalek’s immigration history from Russian government archives, which showed that Marsalek had entered Russia over 60 times in the past decade on a total of six Austrian passports as well as three “diplomatic” passports issued by another, unidentified country.

Bellingcat’s record also showed that on Sept 15, 2017, a private plane carrying Marsalek was denied permission by the Russian intelligence service the FSB for eight hours. This was the last time he entered Russia using his Austrian passports, according to Bellingcat.

The Italian official said the situation was hard to define but did appear similar to a process used to recruit assets by intelligence services.

“We already have strong indications that Wirecard was engaged with fraud and there’s clear links to Russian based actors even beyond [Marsalek’s] disappearance,” said the official. “The pattern appeared to be 60 trips in and out of Russia as he pleased, doing business for what turns out to have likely been a fraudulent concern before he is stopped by the FSB, detained and released.”

“Three years later he disappears into Belarus while pursued by law enforcement and appears to be in Russia, with the clear help of Russian intelligence,” the Italian official said, pointing out that to cross the Belarus-Russia frontier without leaving a paperwork trail would require assistance from Russia’s border guards, who report directly to the FSB.

A Dutch law enforcement official investigating the Wirecard allegations agrees with the broad strokes of the “Marsalek is a Russian asset” theory, saying that it was clear that Marsalek had close ties to Russian intelligence before the scandal but this wasn’t of grave concern outside of Austria.

“Until $2 billion went missing this would have been the Austrians’ problem,” said the Dutch official who refused to be named. “Is one of their companies doing questionable business with the Russians? This was something they were supposed to be on top of, but since the money is gone, this affects multiple countries in the EU, so now we are all asking questions.”

The Dutch official confirmed several allegations about Marsalek that have appeared in the German media in the past few weeks, notably that he took a trip in 2017 to the Syrian desert city of Palmyra with Russian troops, and that he has been credibly accused of passing Austrian secrets obtained from the Interior Ministry to the Austrian-Russian Friendship Society, which the Dutch official said is a front for Russian intelligence.

“If an organization has “Russia” and “Friendship” in its title, you can bet it’s an intelligence operation,” said the official. “I think we are just getting started here on the extent of Russian infiltration of Wirecard, and, honestly, I don’t think any of this is going to end up looking good for Austrian politics.”