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 and supervising its various outposts. As a result, these branches either diverged from the parent organization’s strategy by fighting local regimes or overreached by targeting Muslim civilians, particularly Shiites. For example, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, formerly the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, carried out an unapproved attack in November 2005 that killed numerous civilians in Amman, which was also outside his area of responsibility. These distractions prevented the various branches from contributing much to al Qaeda’s overarching goal of fighting the West, or the “far enemy.” With the exception of its Yemeni subsidiary, al Qaeda’s franchises were largely limited to targeting the “near enemy” in their designated zones. And so, notwithstanding their contribution to the spread of al-Qaeda, its franchises were more of a liability than an asset to the brand name.
But today, al Qaeda, although still a grave threat, is only one of several emanating from the Middle East. Washington must not only contain Iran’s hegemonic aspirations, which threaten U.S. allies, but also fight ISIS’ expansion. Washington’s failure to balance these diverging interests became apparent when it made the mistake of coupling the bombing of ISIS targets in Syria with attacks on al Qaeda’s Khorasan group—operational cells affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra (al Qaeda in Syria) that are planning attacks in the West. The double assault reinforced the jihadist narrative that Washington is hostile to Sunni Muslims and ready to bargain with the murderous Alawite regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Not only did the strikes give al-Nusra a boost in popularity—the Sunnis saw how a group focused primarily on fighting Assad was attacked by the United States—they also made it harder for Washington to persuade Sunni rebels to fight the Islamic State and prompted al-Nusra to attack U.S.-backed rebel factions in northern Syria. Earlier this month, Harakat Hazm, one of the main moderate rebel groups in Syria supported by the United States, announced it was disbanding after suffering defeats from al-Nusra.
Washington’s reluctance to deploy combat forces against ISIS has limited its options to airpower and a reliance on allies’ ground forces. There are some merits to this strategy and signs that it is indeed bearing fruit: ISIS’ astounding advance has been rolled back in some locations, such as in Sinjar, Iraq, and Kobani, Syria. But the unwillingness to invest greater American resources comes with a price: the United States is settling for limited and gradual progress, which is not enough to destroy ISIS.
Consequently, ISIS has adjusted to the U.S. air campaign by expanding beyond…