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The threatening radio transmission heard at the end of a video showing harassing maneuvers by Iranian patrol boats in the Strait of Hormuz may have come from a locally famous heckler known among ship drivers as the "Filipino Monkey."
Since the Jan. 6 incident was announced to the public a day later, the U.S. Navy has said it's unclear where the voice came from. In the videotape released by the Pentagon on Jan. 8, the screen goes black at the very end and the voice can be heard, distancing it from the scenes on the water.
"We don't know for sure where they came from," said Cmdr. Lydia Robertson, spokeswoman for 5th Fleet in Bahrain. "It could have been a shore station."
While the threat — "I am coming to you. You will explode in a few minutes" — was picked up during the incident, further jacking up the tension, there's no proof yet of its origin. And several Navy officials have said it's difficult to figure out who's talking.
"Based on my experience operating in that part of the world, where there is a lot of maritime activity, trying to discern [who is speaking on the radio channel] is very hard to do," Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead told Navy Times during a brief telephone interview today.
Indeed, the voice in the audio sounds different from the one belonging to an Iranian officer shown speaking to the cruiser Port Royal over a radio from a small open boat in the video released by Iranian authorities. He is shown in a radio exchange at one point asking the U.S. warship to change from the common bridge-to-bridge channel 16 to another channel, perhaps to speak to the Navy without being interrupted.
Further, there's none of the background noise in the audio released by the U.S. that would have been picked up by a radio handset in an open boat.
So with Navy officials unsure and the Iranians accusing the U.S. of fabrications, whose voice was it? In recent years, American ships operating in the Middle East have had to contend with a mysterious but profane voice known as the "Filipino Monkey," likely more than one person, who listens in on ship-to-ship radio traffic and then jumps on the net shouting insults and jabbering vile epithets.
Navy women — a helicopter pilot hailing a tanker, for example — who are overheard on the radio are said to suffer particularly degrading treatment.
Several Navy ship drivers interviewed by Navy Times are raising the possibility that the Monkey, or an imitator, was indeed featured in that video.
Rick Hoffman, a retired captain who commanded the cruiser Hue City and spent many of his 17 years at sea in the Gulf was subject to the renegade radio talker repeatedly, often without pause during the so-called "Tanker Wars" of the late 1980s.
"For 25 years there's been this mythical guy out there who, hour after hour, shouts obscenities and threats," he said. "He could be tied up pierside somewhere or he could be on the bridge of a merchant ship."
And the Monkey has stamina.
"He used to go all night long. The guy is crazy," he said. "But who knows how many Filipino Monkeys there are? Could it have been a spurious transmission? Absolutely."
Furthermore, Hoffman said radio signals have a way of traveling long distances in that area. "Under certain weather conditions I could hear Bahrain from the Strait of Hormuz."
Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon, could not say if the voice belonged to the heckler.
"It's an international circuit and we've said all along there were other ships and shore stations in the area," he said.
When asked if U.S. officials considered whether the threats came from someone besides the Iranians when releasing the video and audio, Roughead said: "The reason there is audio superimposed over the video is it gives you a better idea of what is happening."
Similarly, Davis said the audio was part of the "totality" of the situation and helped show the "aggressive behavior."
Another former cruiser skipper said he thought the Monkey might be behind the audio threats when he first heard them earlier this week.
"It wouldn't have surprised me at all," he said. "There's all kinds of chatter on Channel 16. Anybody with a receiver and transmitter can hear something's going on. It was entirely plausible and consistent with the radio environment to interject themselves and make a threatening comment and think they're being funny."
This former skipper also noted how quiet and clean the radio "threat" was, especially when radio calls from small boats in the chop are noisy and cluttered.
"It's a tough environment, you're bouncing around, moving fast, lots of wind, noise. It's not a serene environment," he said. "That sounded like somebody on the beach or a large ship going by."
He said he and others believe that the Filipino Monkey is comprised of several people, and whoever gets on Channel 16 to heckle instantly gets the monicker.
"It was just a gut feeling, something the merchants did. Guys would get bored, one guy hears it, comes back a year later and does it for himself," he said. "I never thought it was one, rather it was part of the woodwork."
The former skipper noted that he warned his crew about hecklers when preparing to transit Hormuz. "I tell them they'll hear things on there that will be insulting," he said. "You tell your people that you'll hear things that are strange, insulting, aggravating, but you need to maintain a professional posture."
A civilian mariner with experience in that region said the Filipino Monkey phenomenon is worldwide, and has been going on for years.
"They come on and say 'Filipino Monkey' in a strange voice. They might say it two or three times. You're standing watch on bridge and you're monitoring Channel 16 and all of a sudden it comes over the radio. It can happen anytime. It's been a joke out there for years."
While it happens all over the world, it's more likely to occur around the Strait of Hormuz because there is so much shipping traffic, he said.