ABU MUSAB AL-ZARQAWI has suddenly disappeared. As briskly as he has emerged, the Jordanian high school dropout who became the undisputed leader of the Iraqi insurgency has descended into obscurity. Where is the man who singlehandedly created from scratch a formidable guerrilla army in occupied Iraq and whom Osama bin Laden called the Emir of Al Qaeda in Iraq?
A year after it assumed the name Al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers (Iraq), Zarqawi's group took a back seat. In an Internet message posted Jan. 15, Abu Maysara al-Iraqi, the group's spokesman, announced the establishment of the Mujahideen Shura Council in Iraq, an alliance of six Salafi jihadi groups created to lead the ''fight to face the infidels and their followers of the converters," unify the mujahideen as per Sharia [Islamic law], and ''clear the mist off people's eyes."
A few days after the council was established, Al Qaeda in Iraq ceased to post communiques. Abu Maysarah temporarily signed the new council's communiques, but then he, too, stopped. The baffled jihadi community initially believed that Zarqawi headed the new council. But on Jan. 20, the council posted a communique crowning its emir: Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi.
Why, then, did Zarqawi's group surrender its position and succumb to the integration? The answers may be found in a letter from Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda's second in command, to Zarqawi, from July 2005.
After congratulating Zarqawi for his jihad in Iraq, Zawahri described Al Qaeda's plans: ''The jihad in Iraq requires several incremental goals. The first stage: Expel the Americans from Iraq. The second stage: Establish an Islamic authority or emirate . . . a caliphate -- over as much territory as you can to spread its power in Iraq, i.e., in Sunni areas. The third: Extend the jihad wave. . ."
The first stage is a result of the US invasion of Iraq. The second stage, it appears, is beginning.
The establishment of the council may well be its opening bell. Zawahri also describes how and by whom the plan will unfold: ''Americans will exit soon, Allah willing, and the establishment of a governing authority . . . does not depend on force alone. Indeed, it's imperative that, in addition to force, there be an appeasement of Muslims and a sharing with them in governance and in the Shura [consulting] council and in promulgating what is allowed and what is not allowed . . . This must be achieved through the people of the Shura and who possess authority to determine issues and make them binding, and who are endowed with the qualifications for working in Sharia."
Therefore, to advance the plan, Iraqis must be in leadership positions; so must be their emir.
''And it does not appear that the mujahideen, much less Al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers, will lay claim to governance without the Iraqi people. Not to mention that that would be in contravention of the Shura methodology . . ."
Thus Zawahri explained why Zarqawi must give up his position. He then addressed the timing of the changes: ''Things may develop faster than we imagine . . . we must be ready to start now, before events overtake us, and before we are surprised by the conspiracies of the Americans and the United Nations and their plans to fill the void behind them. We must take the initiative. . . . This is the most vital part. This authority, or the Sharia emirate that is necessary, requires fieldwork starting now, alongside combat and war."
Following these instructions, Zarqawi abdicated his position. He had not intended to remain in Iraq forever anyway; he used Iraq only as a springboard for his long-term goal -- establishment of a global caliphate.
Zarqawi said in a January 2005 audio message: ''The caliphate is the entrustment [of Allah] on Earth, the guidance of people to the path of Allah, and the implementation of His world in life. . . . This group has no other choice but to be patient and endure [the hardship of] the path it has followed, and consider with Allah, the leaders and members it has lost, and must follow their path; for Allah has chosen this Ummah [Muslim nation], therefore it must not be impatient, as victory is inevitable."
Toward that goal, attacks by Zarqawi's group have expanded beyond Iraq's borders. His group participated in the rocket attack on US Navy ships at the Jordanian port of Aqaba on Aug. 19, 2005, the rocket attack on the Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona on Dec. 27, 2005, and the suicide attack on Western hotels in Amman on Nov. 9, 2005. Thus, Zarqawi and his Al Qaeda in Iraq are not gone; they have simply moved to the next stage of their jihad against the West.