By Ethan Bilby
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A U.S.-led effort to stop the spread of roadside bombs in places like Afghanistan and Iraq is meeting with some success, by using a secure Facebook-style network to trade tips with other countries about suspect chemical shipments.
Operation Global Shield tracks chemicals that can be used as bomb ingredients, building on knowledge from the fight against drug trafficking, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) head John Morton told Reuters in an interview.
The two-year-old program gets countries to sign up to a secure site resembling a social media portal, where they can alert each other to irregular shipments.
It also introduces customs-tracking technology to parts of the world more used to using ledgers and handwritten notes.
"We're working with the customs officers around the world to identify shipments that don't add up," Morton said ahead of the annual meeting of the World Customs Organization in Brussels.
"Countries that don't have traditionally large amounts of exports or imports in a particular precursor chemical and all of a sudden there's a spike."
Global Shield tracks 14 such chemicals which are themselves legal, but can be used by insurgents in homemade bombs known as improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
They range from common household compounds like hydrogen peroxide, used as a hair bleach and antiseptic, to industrial solvents like nitromethane, which is used in dry-cleaning.
Using the network, a customs official can identify a suspicious shipment going to another member country and try to confirm if the shipper is trustworthy.
"We had a recent seizure in Afghanistan... where we came across precursor chemicals that were being used for IEDs, just completely mislabeled as cement paste," Morton said.
The Global Shield program has resulted in seizures of more than 120 tonnes of suspect chemicals and 40 arrests in the last two years, he said.
(Reporting By Ethan Bilby; editing by Rex Merrifield and Mark Trevelyan)