LONDON – A report released Tuesday said Usama bin Laden (search)'s Al Qaeda (search) network has been largely dismantled, but the threat posed by extremist Muslim terrorists remains high and has grown harder to track.
The report by the London-based Control Risks Group (search) said the number of countries likely to pose a medium security risk to Western businesses operating in them was 71 for 2004, with 14 countries bumped up from low-risk. The group is a private consultancy that advises companies on security.
Many of this year's medium risk countries were in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar. Among the other nations moved from low to medium risk were Thailand, Bolivia and Morocco, according to the report, which was meant to aid companies in evaluating risks in different parts of the world.
The company could not immediately say how many of the more than 190 nations it evaluates were considered medium-risk in 2003.
The number of countries where the risk was categorized as "extreme" increased from two this year to three for 2004. They were Burundi, Somalia and Liberia.
The report looked at the risks posed by civil and political instability as well as terrorism. A summary released in advance of the full study did not list the low-risk countries, but they were known to include the United States, Canada, Australia and most of western Europe.
Kevin Rosser, one of the report's authors, said worldwide counterterrorism efforts, including the arrests of Al Qaeda leaders like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (search), the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, had significantly disabled the network.
"The Al Qaeda organization that existed on Sept. 11 (2001) ... really no longer exists, it's been largely dismantled," he said.
"What we're beginning to see is a much more disparate movement of people who are sometimes coordinating their acts and sometimes not, but who are inspired by the example of Al Qaeda and who are carrying out attacks," he said. "So we see the threat becoming much more elusive and the danger is that it becomes much harder to track."
However, bin Laden remains at large and not everyone agrees with that assessment of Al Qaeda's capabilities. Officials in Saudi Arabia believe a homicide car bombing that killed at least 17 people in Riyadh on Saturday bore similarities to previous attacks blamed on the group.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, touring the Middle East, said Sunday he was "personally quite sure" the network was responsible and believes "there is going to be a long struggle" against Al Qaeda.
Rosser said that terrorists' intense focus on civilian targets and the presence of strong anti-American and anti-Western feelings in many parts of the world mean the risk of new attacks remains high.
The report noted the continued risk of a major attack on the United States or Europe, and included London, but not the rest of Britain, on its medium risk list. Athens was also rated medium risk because the Olympics are being held there.
While Western nations were high-priority targets for terrorists, they are harder places for extremists to operate than some other nations, the report said.
"The area which we expect in 2004 is going to see the highest incidence of attacks is going to be the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia," Rosser said.