NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Some thought it would never happen: The U.S. military raiding a foreign ship hijacked by Somali pirates.

In the wee hours this Thursday morning, it did.

The U.S. Navy said 24 Marines took control of a German merchant vessel, the M/V Magellan Star, captured by pirates in the Gulf of Aden a day earlier. Nine men were taken into custody.

There were no injuries -- of crew, marines or pirates -- and injuries are precisely what has dissuaded the military from boarding hijacked ships in the past. According to the prevailing wisdom, to send a squad of heavily armed soldiers storming onto a vessel filled with heavily armed Somalis was to invite a gory climax, endangering the lives of merchant seafarers by catching them within a close-quarters shoot out.

>>The Pirates' Toll: High Stakes on the High Seas

But that's not what played out Thursday. A spokesman for the U.S. Navy told The Wall Street Journal that the decision to take back the ship, and the later success of the operation, didn't mean the navy had changed its policy. It was a matter of circumstance, the spokesman said. Conditions were right for a counterattack. For one thing, the Magellan's crew members reportedly locked themselves inside a safe room aboard ship in a counter-piracy move that has become increasingly common.

"This is a case of us having the right people, with the right capabilities at the right place and at the right time," was all that the naval spokesman would say.

James Christodoulou, the former CEO of a small merchant shipping company that had a vessel hijacked last year, has become a vocal public figure when it comes to methods of preventing piracy and safeguarding crews. "Hopefully this action will send a strong signal to the pirates that they are no longer safe and can no longer act with impunity," Christodoulou said in an email Thursday. "Hopefully the conditions that enabled the rescue -- which, first and foremost, I'm sure, were to assure the safety of the crew -- will be in place in the future."

The warships of some 20 of the world's navies now patrol the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea as part of several task forces, including one created by the U.S. Until now, though, naval authorities have been mostly content to dispatch helicopters in the direction of ships under attack by pirates, in an attempt to disrupt their boarding or scare them off. Naval patrols have arrested hundreds if not thousands of suspected pirates since last year, but often the task forces release the captured men because legal jurisdictions remain a hazy matter at sea. It doesn't help that Somalia itself is a failed state, though the government of Putland, a semi-autonomous region in the north of the country, has prosecuted and jailed pirates in the past.

To one way of thinking, the Somali pirates have exploited the navies' fear of bloodshed. So long as the pirates keep their hostages relatively safe, military forces won't risk causing injury to those hostages by attempting rescues. This unspoken pact, in other words, has become an essential piece of the hijack-for-ransom business model, which has proved highly lucrative.

Ransom rates have undergone a kind of inflation, approaching the tens of millions of dollars, depending on the size of the ship, the patience-level of its owner, the value of its cargo, and the number of its crew members. So common have hijackings become in the waters around the Horn of Africa, home to some of the busiest transport lanes in the world, that pirate gangs have hit the same ships twice.

Almost every major shipping company in the world has suffered an attack, including DryShips ( DRYS), Navios Maritime Partners ( NMM), Excel Maritime ( EXM), Frontline ( FRO) and Genco Shipping & Trading ( GNK). According to the International Maritime Bureau, which tracks incidents of piracy around the world, pirates have hijacked or boarded eleven ships in the Gulf of Aden alone in 2010. If you include the Indian Ocean, the number rises to 30.

The most famous naval intervention in a hijacking occurred in April 2008, when Somali pirates seized the Maersk Alabama, a big containership. The crew ended up fending off the attackers, but not before several of them nabbed the captain and took off in one of the lifeboats. The drama ended days later when snipers with the Navy SEALs shot the pirates dead.

Despite the naval patrols and the scores of arrests, the pirates continue to go about their business.

Hours after Thursday's Marine Corp rescue, "Armed pirates boarded and hijacked a chemical tanker and took its crew as hostage," according to the latest dispatch from the International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre. "Further report awaited."

-- Written by Scott Eden in New York

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