The unmasking of a fugitive former boss of collapsed tech giant Wirecard as the ‘mastermind’ of a Russian spy ring based in Britain is the latest astonishing twist in a story that already reads like a Cold War thriller.
Jan Marsalek, 43, helped coordinate a group of spies who planned abductions on UK soil, prosecutors told a stunned public gallery at Southwark Crown Court in London on Tuesday.
The Austrian, who holds eight passports, is already one of the world’s most-wanted men due to his former role as chief operating officer of Wirecard, the jewel of Germany’s tech sector before it collapsed in a suspected £1.7billion fraud – the biggest in the country’s history.
He is now believed to be hiding in Russia under the protection of the GRU – the feared military intelligence agency tasked with carrying out sabotage and assassinations on foreign soil.
A series of photos of Marsalek show him sporting multiple different identities. In one he is seen in his former iteration as a smart business executive: slick, neatly shaven and wearing a crisp white shirt under a suit.
In others he appears in a series of apparent disguises, from a bushy beard to a pair of thin glasses that present him more as an IT nerd than a member of the c-suite.
Jan Marsalek, 43, helped coordinate a group of spies who planned abductions on UK soil, prosecutors told a stunned public gallery at Southwark Crown Court in London on Tuesday
A series of photos of Marsalek show him sporting multiple different identities. In one, he wears a pair of glasses (left), while in others he has closely cropped hair
Wirecard was once the toast of Germany’s business community, with a €24bn (£20.7bn) valuation on DAX and hordes of lawyers and PR professionals to polish its public image.
As second in command after the CEO, Markus Braun, Marsalek soaked up his fair share of the glory.
Charismatic and smooth-talking, he spoke three languages and was admired for always making time for his colleagues, telling them ‘For you, always’ when they asked for a chat.
Then, on June 18, everything came crashing down.
Following years of tenuous investigative reporting, the company reported that £1.7bn was missing from its accounts after vanishing from two banks in the Philippines – a region that Marsalek helped oversee.
Marsalek had five different passports
He was immediately suspected, and that evening met his friend Martin Weiss – who had once worked for the Austrian intelligence services – at a pizza restaurant in Munich.
The next day, he was driven over the border to Vienna before taking a private jet to Minsk and then on to Russia. It would be the last time Marsalek would ever travel under his own name.
Wirecard later admitted it had been the centre of an ‘elaborate and sophisticated fraud’.
This of course prompted the inevitable question – who exactly was Jan Marsalek?
Born in Vienna on March 15, 1980, Marsalek founded an e-commerce software company aged 19, and was recruited by Wirecard a year later for his technical know-how.
He almost brought down Wirecard as soon as he arrived after an ‘accident’ that saw him send all the incoming traffic through his own computer rather than the company servers.
While little else is known about his early life, one family connection stands out.
His grandfather, Hans, was an anti-Nazi resistance fighter turned suspected Soviet spy, the FT reported earlier this year.
In the post-war period he was accused of overseeing the kidnap of at least four people who were then smuggled back to Russia.
The Austrian is already one of the world’s most wanted men and subjected to an Interpol Red Notice
Even at the height of Wirecard’s success, Marsalek Jr made little secret of his admiration of Russia.
In Munich, he decorated his office with a collection of ushanka military hats and a set of Russian dolls.
He rented a mansion across the street from the Russian consulate, where he hosted parties with spies, and was a member of the Austrian-Russian Friendship Society.
But his connections went beyond a harmless appreciation for Russian culture.
In 2016, he helped arranged a deployment of Russian fighters to Libya after the death of Colonel Gaddafi.
Then, in autumn 2018 – several months after the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury – he invited a journalist to lunch and showed him the chemical formula for Novichok, which he said he had got from ‘friends’.
Marsalek appeared to make the most of his shady connections in his attempts to suppress Wirecard’s detractors.
The former businessman is said to have acted as a ‘tasker’ for five spies. They include Vanya Gaberova, 29, (left) and 31-year-old Ivan Stoyanov (right)
Fellow suspected spies (L-R) Orlin Roussev, 45, Katrin Ivanova, 31 and Bizer Dzhambazov, 41, were previously charged on February 11, 2023
Roussev lived in this guesthouse in the seaside town of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk
In 2008, Tobias Bosler, a German investor who had shorted Wirecard, was confronted in his office by a lawyer and two boxers at his office – one of whom punched the wall above his head while the other threatened to kill him.
Another investor, Fahmi Quadir, was knocked unconscious by a masked man in New York, while Dan McCrum – the FT journalist who led reporting on Wirecard – was at one point so scared that he slept with a hammer under his pillow.
Marsalek is now accused of playing a key role in a two and a half year Russian spying campaign in Britain.
The former businessman is said to have acted as a ‘tasker’ for five Bulgarians – three men and two women – who are alleged to have carried out surveillance activity on behalf of the Russian state.
Orlin Roussev, 45, Bizer Dzhambazov, 41, Katrin Ivanova, 31, Ivan Stoyanov, 31, and Vanya Gaberova, 29, who are all Bulgarian nationals with EU settled status, appeared at Westminster Magistrates’ Court via videolink on Tuesday.
Marsalek’s whereabouts are of course unknown, with an Interpol Red Notice issued for his arrest.
Kathryn Selby, prosecuting, told the court the hub of the espionage activities was Roussev’s home in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, where forged documents and a ‘significant amount of equipment involved in carrying out surveillance activity was recovered’.
The court heard all five defendants were arrested in February for offences contrary to the Official Secrets Act.
Alleged spies Katrin Ivanova (left) and Vanya Gaberova seen in an artist’s illustration as they appear at Westminster Magistrates’ Court via videolink
Alledged spies Orlin Roussev (left) Bizer Dzhambazov (centre) and Ivan Stoyanov
Roussev, Dzhambazov, and Ivanova were charged and the other two held in Home Office detention.
She said: ‘Following their arrest, searches were carried out at their home addresses and a large amount of fraudulent identity documents were found at the addresses of Roussev, Dzhambazov, and Ivanova.
‘Since then, an investigation into the use of those false documents has found they were used to open several false bank accounts.
‘At those addresses, Roussev’s in particular, a significant amount of equipment involved in carrying out surveillance activity was recovered. It is the Crown’s case that Orlin Roussev’s home was the base to carry out espionage involving surveillance of locations and individuals for the Russian state.
‘This includes the potential abduction of some of these targets. Information was fed back to the UK and reporting was sent from the UK to a tasker on behalf of Russia, a person known as Jan Marsalek.
‘Given this case has a national security backdrop it should be dealt with in accordance with the terrorism protocol.’
The offence carries a maximum sentence of 14 years.
Dzhambazov and Ivanova, from north London, and Roussev are also charged with possession of false identity documents with improper intention, under section four of the Identity Documents Act 2010.
District judge Tan Ikram remanded all five in custody to appear at the Old Bailey on October 13. They are yet to enter formal pleas.
The hunt for Marsalek continues.