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Biblical tradition holds that northern Iraq is the land of Cain and Abel. Across post-war Iraq, the ancient parable of fratricide seems to be playing out in a contemporary context: Muslim brothers killing Muslim brothers in spates of violence between the Sunni and Shia sects rippling out in waves across the Middle East.

Syrian rebel fighters prayer 2013
Rebel fighters offer prayers near their position as they prepare to fight against pro-Syrian regime forces on the Jabal al-Turkman mountains in Syria's northern Latakia province, on February 5, 2013. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi youth fighting against Assad regime in Syria

GlobalPost has learned that hundreds of young Saudis are flocking to Syria in a 'holy war' against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Editor's Note: This dispatch is part of a GlobalPost Special Report exploring the rift between Sunni and Shia Muslims, "In the Land of Cain & Abel," marking 10 years since the US invasion of Iraq.  

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Following a circuitous route from here up through Turkey or Jordan and then crossing a lawless border, hundreds of young Saudis are secretly making their way into Syria to join extremist groups fighting against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, GlobalPost has learned.

With the tacit approval from the House of Saud, and financial support from wealthy Saudi elites, the young men take up arms in what Saudi clerics have called a “jihad,” or “holy war” against the Assad regime.

Based on a month of reporting in the region and in Washington, over a dozen sources have confirmed that wealthy Saudis, as well as the government, are arming some Syrian rebel groups. Saudi and Syrian sources confirm that hundreds of Saudis are joining the rebels, but the government denies any sponsoring role.

The Saudis are part of an inflow of Sunni fighters from Libya, Tunisia, and Jordan, according to Aaron Zelin, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute.

“Most people going there don’t think they will come back.”
~Abdulaziz Alghufili

“Most of the foreigners are fighting with al-Nusra or Ahrar al-Sham,” both extremist groups, Zelin said.

More from GlobalPost: Exclusive interview with leader of Syria's Jabhat al-Nusra

Sunni extremist fighters are now part of a vicious civil war that has killed an estimated 70,000 people and created more than a million refugees. The fighters are also part of a larger struggle in a region in which opportunistic leaders stoke the age-old rift between the Sunni and Shia in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia itself.

The Saudis hope to weaken their regional competitor Iran, a Shia theocracy that is backing Assad. Saudi officials also hope to divert simmering political unrest at home by encouraging young protesters to instead fight in Syria, according to Saudi government critics.

The government seeks to “diffuse domestic pressure by recruiting young kids to join in another proxy war in the region,” said Mohammad Fahd al-Qahtani, a human rights activist and economics professor at the Institute of Diplomatic Studies in Riyadh. They are joining ultraconservative groups who “definitely are against democracy and human rights. The ramifications could be quite serious in the whole region.”

In one documented case, a Saudi judge encouraged young anti-government protesters to fight in Syria rather than face punishment at home. Twenty-two year old Mohammed al-Talq was arrested and found guilty of participating in a demonstration in the north-central Saudi city of Buraidah.

After giving 19 young men suspended sentences, the judge called the defendants into his private chambers and gave them a long lecture about the need to fight Shia Muslims in Syria, according to Mohammed’s father, Abdurrahman al-Talq.

“You should save all your energy and fight against the real enemy, the Shia, and not fight inside Saudi Arabia,” said the father, quoting the judge. “The judge gave them a reason to go to Syria.”

Within weeks, 11 of the 19 protesters left to join the rebels. In December 2012, Mohammed al-Talq was killed in Syria. His father filed a formal complaint against the judge late last year, but said he has received no response.

Saudi Arabia shares no border with Syria, so young fighters such as Mohammad must travel through Turkey or Jordan.

Those without criminal records can fly as tourists to Istanbul. Those convicted of crimes or on government watch lists cannot travel without official Ministry of Interior permission. Critics say the government allows such militants to depart with a wink and a nod. Then they sneak across the Jordanian border into southern Syria.

The young militants are sometimes funded by rich Saudis. They acquire black market AK-47s and cross at night along the now porous Syrian borders, according to a local journalist.

Sami Hamwi, the pseudonym of an exiled Syrian journalist who regularly reports from inside the country, has carefully observed the flow of the Saudi fighters to Syria. He told GlobalPost that groups of 3-5 Saudis often join Jabhat al-Nusra, a prominent rebel faction the United States says has links to Al Qaeda.

Al-Nusra went public in February 2012 after taking credit for several major bombings in Damascus and Aleppo. Its reputation as one