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Did a Radio Prank Escalate Iran-U.S. Confrontation?

Could the Persian Gulf's infamous "Filipino Monkey" have struck again? Veteran mariners say hecklers known throughout the region as "the Filipino Monkey" may have broadcast a threatening radio message that nearly prompted U.S. warships to open fire on Iranian naval boats.

The incident took place in the busy Strait of Hormuz on Jan. 6. The Pentagon says five Iranian Navy speedboats rapidly approached a convoy of American warships, and then dumped several items overboard in the path of the American vessels.

Iran denies the American accusations. An officer from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps says the Iranian speedboats were carrying out a routine maritime inspection of the passing American convoy. Tehran accused Washington of exaggerating the incident for political gain.

During the incident, the U.S. Navy says, its ships intercepted an accented voice over VHF radio, which said "I am coming to you. ... You will explode after [static] minutes."

The U.S. Navy has not been able to identify the source of the ominous message. Commander Lydia Robertson, a spokesperson for the Navy's Fifth Fleet headquartered in Bahrain, said there are several possible explanations.

"It ranges from a possible heckler to maybe a transmission [that] came from a shore station, maybe from a passing ship," Robertson said.

In the Persian Gulf, hecklers have long plagued Channel 16, the open VHF radio channel used for ship-to-ship communications. They quickly earned themselves an unusual nickname.

"The Filipino Monkey ... was actually started back in the '80s," said Jon Hewson, a 17-year veteran of the British Merchant Marine now based in Dubai.

"They would just come on in a high-pitched voice and scream out the term 'Filipino Monkey.' And sometimes when they stopped, somebody else would it pick up. It was a real nuisance."

The Filipino Monkey phenomenon was particularly troublesome during the "Tanker War" of the 1980s, when commercial vessels in the Persian Gulf became targets of hostile fire. Hecklers would frequently jam Channel 16, which is also used to send emergency distress signals.

American mariners say the Filipino Monkey is a recurring problem in the region.

"In particular in the Persian Gulf, we found that generally people with a little bit too much time on their hands will get on the radio and just kind of amuse themselves with different heckling," said Captain Michael Burns, a Portsmouth, Mass.-based commercial seaman. Burns has steamed through the Strait of Hormuz several times aboard U.S. government-contracted oceanographic vessels.

"They just kind of chatter on the radio incessantly and try to provoke a reaction from other people listening to the radio, or generally kind of harass other mariners," Burns said.

Burns added that he has also heard the Filipino Monkey hurling epithets at U.S. Navy ships patrolling the Gulf.

"I have heard derogatory remarks made about the U.S. Navy while in that area, or rival fishermen — really, whatever happens to strike their particular source of amusement," he said.

Professional mariners speculate that the Filipino Monkey transmissions are made by bored sailors, playing on their ship radios. It is difficult to identify the source of VHF radio signals, since they can broadcast for more than 80 miles over sea.

The U.S. Navy argues that due to the timing of the radio warning on Jan. 6, the broadcast is extremely suspicious.

"What I think is more important is to look at how this transmission came in the midst of all this other activity," said Commander Robertson of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.

In the wake of this month's incident, President Bush has warned repeatedly that there would be "serious consequences" if Iran attacks American warships.

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Ivan Watson
Ivan Watson is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he has served as one of NPR's foreign "firemen," shuttling to and from hotspots around the Middle East and Central Asia.
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