Hardly anyone was more surprised by Iraq's insurgency than Osama bin Laden. The terrorist chief had never foreseen its sudden, ferocious spread, and he was likewise unprepared for the abrupt rise of its most homicidal commander, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. Bin Laden and his aides knew the Jordanian-born Palestinian from Zarqawi's Afghan days, but mostly as a short-tempered bully and a troublemaker. So in the late summer of 2003, unwilling to sit on the sidelines, bin Laden sent two of his most trusted men to assess the Iraqi resistance and carve out a leading role for Al Qaeda. "The resistance happened faster than we expected, and differently, so we were not prepared to assist and direct it," one of the two envoys later told a senior Taliban official. "The sheik sent me to see how we could help."

The Taliban man recently told the envoy's story to NEWSWEEK. He personally heard the account from the envoy, a top-ranking Qaeda member known as Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, at a meeting last December in western Pakistan. The Taliban official, who uses the name Zabihullah, is a liaison between his group and Al Qaeda. Many of the account's details are borne out by interviews with other well-informed jihadis. Officials familiar with U.S. intelligence, while refusing to discuss many of the story's specifics, confirm that its fundamentals are accurate.

The two bin Laden envoys traveled overland from Afghanistan separately. One never got to Iraq. Authorities in Iran later announced that they had apprehended the Egyptian-born Saif al-Adel, and he seems to be there still. Al-Iraqi did better. Those who know him say he fits in perfectly wherever he goes. Born in Iraqi Kurdistan about 1960, he rose to the rank of major in Saddam Hussein's Army before joining the jihad in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. He speaks not only Arabic but Urdu, Kurdish, the Waziri tribal dialect of Pashtu and a courtly form of Persian. In the palatial salons of the gulf states he has raised millions of dollars for Al Qaeda. But dressed for the part he can easily pass for a mountain tribesman. "He's just like any Afghan," says Zabihullah. "He doesn't have the arrogance and formality of other Arabs."

Al-Iraqi needed all the poise and charm he could muster for his mission to the insurgents. By the time he reached Iraq, in late 2003, Zarqawi had built a fearsome team of resistance fighters. The Jordanian considered himself to be the obvious choice for Al Qaeda's top man in Iraq. He was livid at the news that bin Laden had chosen al-Iraqi for the job. "I'm already here!" Zarqawi told al-Iraqi. "So why is the sheik sending someone else?"

No one but Zarqawi could see much mystery there. Zarqawi was widely disliked in Afghanistan. Even bin Laden was repulsed by reports of his vicious temper and gratuitous cruelty. In the late 1990s, commanding a unit of Arab irregulars near Afghanistan's Iranian border, the Jordanian terrorized local civilians and infuriated Taliban leaders. Mullah Mohammed Omar's men had just taken control of the area and were trying to win the trust of its mostly Shiite inhabitants. When Zarqawi wasn't busy persecuting Shiites, he wrangled with other Arabs and with the local Taliban chief.

Zarqawi had "a terrifying face," al-Iraqi recalled later. But the envoy said he knew at once that Zarqawi was exactly what Al Qaeda needed. "There is no doubt that he is the best man to lead foreign and Iraqi insurgents in Iraq," al-Iraqi told bin Laden when he got back to the caves, according to Zabihullah's account. "He deserves our support." The envoy has made three trips to Iraq since then. Just before the last, in September, a London-based Arabic-language daily quoted Zarqawi as repudiating bin Laden and Al Qaeda: "I have not sworn allegiance to the sheik and I am not working within the framework of his organization." But after meeting again with al-Iraqi, the Jordanian proclaimed his loyalty to bin Laden and announced a new name for his terrorist group: "Al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers." "I'm a loyal soldier and ready to sacrifice myself to the sheik, who is our leader," he told al-Iraqi.

Bin Laden replied by issuing an audiotape that praised Zarqawi's exploits and called him the "prince of Al Qaeda in Iraq." The tape instructed all Qaeda supporters to follow Zarqawi's orders. Bin Laden had already made his wishes known to Zarqawi via al-Iraqi. "My greatest wish is for you to keep the resistance alive and growing, to increase the number of local insurgents and give the Iraqis more decision-making powers," Zarqawi was told. "Make it as much of an Iraqi organization as possible." Bin Laden also urged his prince to widen the war against America: "We have to expand our attacks on the enemy outside Iraq."

The envoy is proud of his work. "I'm the person who broke the silence and solved the difficulties between Zarqawi and the Al Qaeda leadership," he told Zabihullah. Donations to Al Qaeda's coffers had dried up as bin Laden's top men were killed or captured. Now private money is once again flooding in. Bin Laden himself is looking more confident and relaxed--maybe too relaxed, al-Iraqi said. When he visited the Qaeda leader in November, the envoy noticed fewer checkpoints than previously along the trail. "The sheik has a new mentality and is more healthy," he told Zabi-hullah. On his last visit to Iraq, the envoy got an offer from Zarqawi: if life got too risky in the mountains along Pakistan's border, bin Laden would be welcome to take refuge with him among the insurgents in Iraq. The envoy politely declined. At present, the Qaeda leader seems to be doing just fine where he is.