Osama bin Laden sits with Ayman al-Zawahiri who took over Al Qaeda after bin Laden's death, November 10, 2001.
Hamid Mir-Ausaf Newspaper for Daily Dawn / Courtesy Reuters

Since 9/11, Washington has considered al Qaeda the greatest threat to the United States, one that must be eliminated regardless of cost or time. After Washington killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, it made Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s new leader, its next number one target. But the instability in the Middle East following the Arab revolutions and the meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) require that Washington rethink its policy toward al Qaeda, particularly its targeting of Zawahiri. Destabilizing al Qaeda at this time may in fact work against U.S. efforts to defeat ISIS.

There is no doubt that relentless U.S. strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan weakened al Qaeda by taking out the group’s central command and making it extremely difficult for it to plot attacks in the West. Pulverizing al Qaeda central also exacerbated difficulties it was already having in communicating with

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  • BARAK MENDELSOHN is Associate Professor of Political Science at Haverford College and a Research Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @BarakMendelsohn.
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