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A Yemeni-American and an Egyptian-American were among the five arrested, Mr. Kiani added.

The U.S. military intelligence official said Pakistan told the U.S. of the arrests Wednesday. He added that getting five American recruits would be a major coup for al Qaeda or any other Islamist jihad group.

“[CIA Director] Michael V. Hayden, [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike]Mullen and others have long said that al Qaeda was recruiting and training Westerners and people familiar with the West,” the military intelligence official said. “U.S. passports are especially prized.”

The enormous value of Americans to al Qaeda means that the group takes extra care with U.S. recruits. However, the military intelligence official explained, this also makes it difficult to determine at what stage of training the group may have been.

Mr. Hooper of CAIR said that while his group would not take credit for the arrests, “We initiated contact with the FBI to make them aware of this developing situation. What course it took from there was up to the FBI and the investigators on the ground.”

Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman, confirmed U.S. knowledge of the case but gave no details.

“The FBI is working with families and local law enforcement to investigate the missing students and is aware of the individuals arrested in Pakistan. We are working with Pakistan authorities to determine their identities and the nature of their business there, if indeed these are the students who had gone missing. Because this is an ongoing investigation, we will not be able to provide further details at this time,” he said.

One of the men arrested was Ramy Zamzam, a dental student attending Howard University. The school would confirm only, in a press release, that he was enrolled during the fall 2009 semester.

Samirah Ali, president of Howard University’s Muslim Student Association, told the Associated Press that the FBI contacted her last week about Mr. Zamzam and said he had been missing for a week. Attempts to reach Ms. Ali were not successful.

She told the AP that she has known Mr. Zamzam for three years and was surprised to learn he is suspected of involvement with Islamist radicalism.

“He’s a very nice guy, very cordial, very friendly,” Ms. Ali said. “It really caught me off guard.”

c Ben Conery and Victor Morton contributed to this report.