Fakes Flood Front Lines as Iraqis Don Knockoffs of Popular AAFES Gear

Yahia Majid Asa, right, a member of Iraq's Golden Division, wears a 5.11 Tactical sweater in eastern Mosul on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016, as his colleague Ahmed Faisal looks on. (CHAD GARLAND/STARS AND STRIPES)
Yahia Majid Asa, right, a member of Iraq's Golden Division, wears a 5.11 Tactical sweater in eastern Mosul on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016, as his colleague Ahmed Faisal looks on. (CHAD GARLAND/STARS AND STRIPES)

IRBIL, Iraq -- One marker of U.S. influence on the front lines of the Mosul campaign is small but recognizable, and seemingly everywhere -- the brand insignia for the Irvine, Calif.-based 5.11 Tactical line of apparel and accessories.

The gear, pervasive at U.S. military exchanges, has become so desirable among Iraqi forces that even obvious fakes and cheap knockoffs are common. It seems to be a sign of the brand's niche appeal as gear for "operators" and of its target market's involvement here.

The 5.11 logo -- the numerals beside a pair of concentric squares with a cross in their center -- and similar marks are emblazoned on T-shirts, hats, pullovers and jackets worn by Iraqi federal police, special operations forces and Kurdish soldiers.

In late December, in the center of the Kurdish region's capital, where a cluster of shops sell body armor and other military gear, Azad Azad, 18, was purchasing a camouflage microfiber jacket.

"I love the peshmerga," he said, referring to the Kurdish forces. "So for that, I buy this jacket."

Azad doesn't serve, but his father had until he was killed in the line of duty. Azad's new jacket, meant to honor men like his father, bore a deceptively familiar patch with a red box -- but this label read "S.11," and the red square lacked 5.11's central cross.

Shopkeeper Mohammed Ismail, 20, said the S.11 and 5.11 gear in his shop, especially the jackets in winter, were popular with peshmerga fighters. Both brands are priced the same, he said, but on 5.11 Tactical's website, a jacket similar to Azad's runs about $250, or about 10 times what he paid.

Ismail held up a pair of combat boots from a U.S. supplier, which he sells for about $180 dollars. A similar pair made in China cost about $20, he said.

Other likely counterfeits in stock included rugged-looking gloves with an Oakley logo and boots bearing the mark of Columbia Sportswear, brands whose global sales far surpass 5.11's but whose presence on the shelves here don't seem to match it.

Nearby shops were selling jackets like Azad's, some with authentic-looking 5.11 markings, some with similarly styled S.11 and A.5.1.1 patches. Shopkeepers said the goods came from suppliers in China, Thailand and elsewhere in Iraq.

A report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development last year estimated that the market for fakes -- largely supplied by China -- makes up about 2.5 percent of global trade, or more than $450 billion annually.

International counterfeiting affects nearly every brand, and "it's not going down," said Alan Zimmerman, a professor at City University of New York who has written about the problem. The true scale is hard to gauge, he said, partly because so few shipments are ever searched and other illicit activities, such as drug smuggling, human trafficking and terrorism, typically rank as higher priorities for enforcement officials.

The fakes business is attractive because startup costs can be low, profits high and penalties light, Zimmerman said. In fact, some international law enforcement and anti-counterfeiting groups have found that terrorists, including the Islamic State group and al-Qaida, have partially funded their operations through counterfeiting Nike shoes and other goods.

"You didn't invent the brand," he said. "You don't have to do all the marketing."

It's not clear why the 5.11 Tactical brand is so popular among Iraqis, but it was likely introduced through U.S. servicemembers and contractors. An association with the U.S. military could have bolstered its image as premium gear.

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Gear and Equipment Iraq